JENKINS: When does anonymity equate to cowardice?

In the novel “Caught” by Harlan Coben, a man who took the fall for a college prank gone horribly wrong decides, decades later, to exact revenge on the four fraternity brothers who were also involved but never implicated. So he sets out to ruin their reputations by posting vicious lies and rumors about them on Internet blogs and chat rooms — anonymously, of course.

Coben never actually mentions whether or not his deranged antagonist is a college football fan, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

That incisive commentary on our high-speed Internet society, in which hard-won reputations can be ruined in less time than it takes to download a YouTube video, hit close to home: I too, like embattled Georgia Coach Mark Richt, have been the victim of such attacks — as, no doubt, have many of you.

In fact, I sometimes think we’ve entered an era in which, instead of enjoying Andy Warhol’s oft-cited “15 minutes of fame,” we’re all destined to suffer 15 minutes of defamation.

Normally, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the sort of petty rumor mongering and ugly personal attacks to which I was subjected. After writing opinion pieces for 10 years, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. But there seems to be something about the electronic medium that lends instant credibility to faceless posters, as if commenting anonymously online somehow constituted being “published.”

And the real problem, from the victim’s point of view, is that no matter how ridiculous the unattributed assertions, a certain percentage of the people who read them will simply shake their heads and say to themselves, “Really? I had no idea. Somebody ought to do something.”

That’s how reputations are destroyed, while those doing the destroying cravenly evade any accountability for their actions.

Of course, there are times when the desire for anonymity is reasonable. Some bloggers and commenters risk losing their jobs or face other forms of retaliation if they use their real names, especially if their real names happen to be Urban and Steve.

So my answer to the question posed in the title is this: Anonymity is morally defensible when its purpose is to protect one’s livelihood, but it becomes cowardice — and thus reprehensible — when used to provide cover for character assassination.

While that sort of behavior might be expected from 30-something sports geeks who still live with their parents, I’d like to think that the standard is a little higher for the rest of society.

I’d really, really like to think that.

How should we collectively respond to these affronts to human decency? Perhaps we can agree not to put any credence in anonymous posts or comments. If people want to enter the fray, let them do so under their own names. Let them be accountable for their words. And if they’re not willing to do that, then their words should carry no weight.

None at all.

Rob Jenkins is a free-lance writer who lives in Lawrenceville. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.