Editorial: Hoax letters no laughing matter

Pranksters apparently went too far recently. In three separate cases, three individuals were convicted for leaving hoax anthrax letters at a friend’s or boss’ desk. The envelopes contained harmless materials, such as confectioner’s sugar or flour.

Although these people did not send hazardous materials, they are being punished as though they did, with up to five-year sentences. This may seem extreme, but with the heightened anxiety concerning anthrax scares, this is a reasonable punishment for playing on people’s fears.

These pranksters should be punished with more severe sentences. Two of the men convicted of the hoaxes received reduced sentences. They claimed they meant no malice toward the recipients. Robert McCulloch, a prosecuting attorney in one of the cases, said, “You have to be able to distinguish that (pranksters) from the guy who is truly malicious.”

However, this distinction cannot be done simply by looking at a person. President George W. Bush supports the actions taken with pranksters saying, “Those who believe this is an opportunity for a prank should know that sending false alarms is a serious criminal offense.” The seriousness of the crime is evident with a reward for mail fraud criminals ranging from $50,000 to $1 million.

With the national threat of bio-terrorism at hand, hoaxes by citizens of this nation cannot be taken lightly. The sentences issued in the three cases should remain unchanged or increased in order to deter future hoaxers. If not, people won’t understand the gravity of making such false threats.

Setting the example with these cases and others that may arise will prevent more hoaxes and allow the actual perpetrators to be found. As harmless as these pranks may seem, they place undue anxiety in a society already grappled with fear of anthrax.