I ought to be thankful that I learned long ago never to make sport of the efforts of security cops. I've been nearly strip searched by border patrol workers transferred North to Detroit from the Mexican border in the 1970s. They asked whether buddies and I had any citrus fruit to declare in the dead of a January freeze; they didn't like it when I laughed at them. And then there was the time I made a flip remark about a bomb in my book bag to an airport security guard. No, no, no, I learned. Irreverence and sarcasm are a crime these days. We simply can't be safe enough, it appears. So like grim Calvinists we are required to march lockstep through the drudgery of our days.
Consider the case of Paul J. Chambers. He has been convicted of a crime in England for spouting off on line about the failure of the Robin Hood Airport to operate efficiently.
The airport was closed down recently due to a snowstorm. A lovestruck Mr. Chambers was grounded, and was unable to kindle the sparks of a fresh romance with a distant lover he was trying to visit. In frustration, he wrote the following on Twitter: "You've got a week to get your [expletive] together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" He did not send this note to the airport. He merely posted it to folks who follow his messages on the populer social network site. An airport employee stumbled upon the note several days later and called the police. The rest is jurisprudential history.
Twitter is among the many arrows in the Internet's quiver of social media tools. It permits a user to send a text message electronically to folks who elect to "follow" the sender. The message can be no more than 140 characters. Needless to say, you can't say alot in 140 characters. But the tender minded can always find a way to take offense, no matter how brief the message. And the state can make a crime of virtually anything. So why not Twittering in the First Degree? I stumbled on Twitter earlier this year; I've met a few new people worth knowing, and decided several I thought I knew weren't worth the bother. It is just another form of real life, where familiarity can breed either friendship or contempt.
Mr. Chambers was convicted of causing a menace and assessed fines and court costs of nearly $5,000. The crime sounds perilously close to what we call breach of the peace here in the land of the free. You breach the peace when you cause annoyance, alarm and inconvenience to another. Put another way, we're all criminals from time to time. It's what makes life worth living. At least I hope that is so.
But try telling that to the stuffy nitwit of a judge who rejected Mr. Chambers' appeal. "Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences" of this message, said the Honorable Jacqueline "Twitwit" Davies." If the goal of terrorism is to alter perceptions and rent a space in the hearts and minds of those they attack, Judge Davies is bought and paid for. She is a clear and present danger to freedom of speech.
The hooplah over Robin Hood Airport has become a hot topic online. Merry pranskers are now threatening to blow up Parliament, the White House, NBC, the world, and all sorts of other locations, daring law enforcement to strike at all those with the temerity to thumb their nose at those crying "Safety, security uber alles." These new Twitterati have even adopted a rallying cry: "I am Paul Chambers," they write. The line is a take off of the cry made by fictional rebels in the Kirk Douglas film Sparatacus. After Roman legions crushed the rebellion led by Spartacus in the first century B.C.E., the film shows Roman commanders rooting among the captured rebels for their leader. "I am Spartacus," the men cried, in an effort to frustrate their captors. It makes for entertaining viewing.
Reality was far less entertaining, both for Spartacus and his followers. Sparactacs himself was most likely killed on the battlefield in 71 B.C.E., historians tells us, although his remains were never found. Those of his followers who survived the final conflict were rounded up by the Romans and crucified. As many as six thousand crosses were posted along a major thoroughfare leading to Rome and the rebels were left to die, the better to warn other dispossessed folks not to raise their arms against the majesty of Rome. Power won in the Spartacus Wars. It usually does, making timid revolutionaries of all but the bravest and most desperate of souls.
Don't get me wrong. I am still rooting for Mr. Chambers and his supporters. Speak up, act up and play the role of merry prankster all you can, I say. Just hope for a better than that which befell Spartacus. Power killed him, just as it slapped Mr. Chambers down for the simple act of using barbed speech to express frustration. Are we safe enough yet?