Tuesday, January 18, 2011

'And I also think...wait, there's loud knocking at the door...'

Once again this morning I find myself troubled by the extreme, albeit predictable, reactions to the Tucson killings in the way of policing free speech (or, more precisely, free expression). My morning paper informs me of two local individuals, one a school employee, who, since Tucson, have been "identified" as potential spree killers based on Facebook postings and the like. Both are now in custody. I'm sure that wherever you're reading this, newspapers and other news outlets in your market have featured similar stories over the past week.

I'll quote the passage fr
om one such Facebook post that the school employee's supervisors (and then police officials) considered too disturbing to overlook. First you need a bit of background: After reading earlier posts from this individual, administrators had called him in for a little getting-to-know-you chat, where he must have sweet-talked them. Later he posted this:

"You should have been in the meeting with the admins today…boy was I full of BS. I even wrote out a whole plan of attack. … What if I did lose it. What if I came into the School with a gun. I could have…I have all the keys. I can get in any door…anywhere."
If? What if? Could have? I'm sorry, in my book those are musings that simply don't rise to the level of a "terroristic threat" (a slippery notion to begin with, especially when applied to moments of crisis in interpersonal relationships like marriages or friendships. As I've said more than once in this space, if such a statute were on the books when I was in high school, everybody I knew I would've been in Guantanamo). Now, is the above passage unsettling? Absolutely. Should the guy be fired for writing it? In this day and age, perhaps so. But lots of things are unsettling. Lots of people are unsettling. Have you been to New York recently? I was, just yesterday, and let me tell ya....

As I see it, a person is entitled to think and write like a wacko. Besides, what's "wacko" thinking, anyway? Yesterday as the wife and I were
on our way to the funeral, we heard a radio ad, an enticement for listeners to invest in gold; it was every bit as alarmist as any of Jared Loughner's ramblings about "currency." In the scariest possible language, the ad segued from the banking crisis to the credit crisis to the foreclosure rate to the unemployment rate to the general instability of the U.S. financial infrastructure. Obviously I couldn't write down the exact copy, since at the time I was doing 65 on the Long Island Expressway, but I distinctly recall one particular line: "The government is printing funny money, not worth the paper it's printed on!"

Hmmm. So is that advertiser, whoever it was, inciting anarchy and insurrection? Is the advertiser insane? Speaking of anarchy, is the Michigan militia insane to believ
e that when the chips are down, the government won't be there to protect us, so they must prepare to protect their own families and loved ones?

As for word meanings and Jared Loughner's by-now-famously "insane" nihilist theories on same: Don't know about you, but I participated in many discussions in college philosophy classes that greatly resembled the kinds of exchanges Loughner is said to have had with teachers. Right on this blog we've encountered LGATs (e.g. here and here) that actively encourage their clients to take nothing in language at face value: to parse every word, reexamine every nuance, and even redefine familiar expressions for more personal utility. For that matter, we give some of civilian society's highest awards (and salaries) to physicists who argue, in essence, that something can be there and not there at the same time. Is that sane? Insane? Or just "enlightened"? (And let's not even get into the law of attraction. Or, for that matter, religion.)

Here's another question for you. What if it's ultimately decided by the powers-that-be that no one may henceforth use language that intimidates or even discomfits other people in any form. Aside from the impact such a statute would have on poetry, music and other art, let's think about what it would do to the would-be killers themselves. Would it "cure" them? Would it make them stop thinking scary things? Or would it just drive more of them underground, forcing them to plot out their mayhem in ironclad secrecy? Once people of true sinister intent* know you're on to them, they just switch tactics.

You don't really expect Al Qaida to come at us with box-cutters again, do you?

* i.e. in contrast to posers or those who just like to hear themselves talk ... which I think applies to a lot of the people who post crazy stuff on Facebook.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, it has long been part of our legal statutes to equate a threat of assault with assault itself. If someone tells me they're going to harm me or someone I care about, I will take them at their word, and my response - determined by my evaluation of the threat's viability - would be be well within the bounds of the law, if not the definition of diplomacy.

IMO, there's a big difference between "crazy" talk and actually threatening to do harm to someone. To announce something like, "I could do this, and here's how" would elicit a discussion to attempt to determine actual intent, at the very least. That's not impeding freedom of speech, IMO. Just applying common sense in determining the level of self-defense that is warranted.

Cosmic Connie said...

You raise some good points here. While I'm as concerned as anyone else about the whole civility issue, and can't entirely absolve prominent conservatives who have encouraged inflammatory rhetoric, I have been nearly as worried about the effects the Tucson event might have on freedom of expression in our society.

This concern prompted me last week to partially quote a tweet from magician and skeptic Penn Jillette, whom I follow on Twitter. While I don't necessarily agree with the first part of his tweet, which was, "F--k civility!", this part resonated: "Marketplace of ideas can not be toned down for the insane." So I quoted it.

In response, someone else replied to me (and to Penn): "If you saw the blood on the little girl, you might feel differently."

To which Penn replied: "You're taking the blame away from the perp? How does that help the dead little girl?"

And by the way, our pal Tony Robbins has engaged in his own scare tactics about the economy.

Let's not even get into Kevin True-dough's paranoia mill. I will mention, however, that his marketing manager Peter Wink posted one of his standard provocative "I'm wondering" questions on his Facebook page today, suggesting that the Tucson shooting was part of -- you guessed it -- a government conspiracy. When some respondents protested, he deleted their responses, but not his own sarcastic replies to them. Nicely played.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of OJ's book, If I Did It.

Stever Robbins said...

Steve, this post really intimidates and alarms me. Perhaps you should switch to writing about cute children, flowers, and puppy dogs.

a/good/lysstener said...

As a former English major I certainly value free speech. At the same time I think it's essential that society protects us from the crazies. If we have advance warning of somebody's horrific plan, isn't saving those lives worth a small sacrifice in the right to make insane statements?