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Thursday, November 11, 2010 

This joke isn't funny anymore.

Calling something common sense is a much abused turn of phrase, especially when deployed by either politicians or tabloid newspapers. It is however incredibly difficult not to conclude that the very inverse of common sense has been the order of the day ever since someone from Robin Hood airport near Doncaster searched Twitter, found Paul Chambers' clearly facetious update about blowing it sky high in a week if the then closed terminal wasn't reopened and reported it to the police. The mindset alone of the person who reported it has to be questioned: while you can understand those who joke about having bombs in their luggage when being searched before boarding are treated with the utmost seriousness because they really could have explosives on them, however unlikely it is, it's a different order of threat entirely when someone lets their frustration out on a social networking site.

If we were only dealing with the malevolence of a passive aggressive, jobsworth employee at one of the nation's lesser airports then Chambers would never have become something approaching a cause célèbre. Instead it's been that same level of by the book officialdom, combined with the hysterical climate regarding terrorism in which we unfortunately live which has followed at every stage of Chambers' interaction with the authorities which is so completely baffling. While the police are obliged to investigate every report which they receive and will have undoubtedly had to treat what could have been something far more serious with a certain level of care, that doesn't explain what possibly made the Crown Prosecution Service think that this was a case which was worth pursuing through the courts, having had everything laid out in front of them. It doesn't explain how not one, but two judges haven't been able to see Chambers' message as anything other than menacing, and tell the CPS to stop being so silly and wasting everyone's time and money. Indeed, it also doesn't explain how a supposedly learned woman, Judge Jacqueline Davies, could say in all seriousness, regardless of the context in which the message was being sent, that Chambers' tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

Well, as such a statement almost demands in response, this ordinary person reading it sees it as an obvious joke, in poor taste perhaps and ill-advised, but about as genuinely menacing as Chambers and crazycolours look as posed on her Twitter page. Perhaps that however is the whole point. It's not ordinary people that have sat in judgement on Chambers since the very beginning - it's instead those in positions of authority, however slight, who have seen fit to treat Chambers not as a frustrated and anxious individual on his way to meet someone in person for the first time, someone he now lives with, but as an actual potential terrorist on whom the full level of the law must fall. Unintentionally, Chambers mocked the ridiculous situation in which we find ourselves, called upon to find everyone and everything potentially suspicious until proved otherwise, and for that has been dealt with in a shocking manner by a system which we usually rely upon to make the distinction between the frivolous and the deadly serious.

We can't however pretend that it is purely those in positions of power that are so puffed up with pride that they regard anything that dents that façade as the equivalent of a violent blow against their person. Yesterday the Tory councillor Gareth Compton was mainly being held up as a hypocrite after he jokingly called through a tweet for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to be stoned to death, only later to then condemn the violence on the student protest in no uncertain terms. Alibhai-Brown didn't see the funny side, and whether as a result of her own report to the police or someone else's, he was today nonetheless arrested, subsequently bailed, and then suspended from his party. Worth highlighting is Alibhai-Brown's reaction as reported by the Guardian:

"It's really upsetting. My teenage daughter is really upset too. It's really scared us.

"You just don't do this. I have a lot of threats on my life. It's incitement. I'm going to the police – I want them to know that a law's been broken."

While I don't wish to be insensitive, and different people will always react to such things in different ways, my response would be the same as to those who failed to treat Chambers' tweet in the context in which was sent: to tell them to get over their fucking selves. I might have developed a blasé attitude to similar "threats" having spent a considerable time in some of the internet's less salubrious locations, yet surely it's impossible not to view Compton's message as anything other than an exasperated response to the arguments she was making, intended for a small audience of his followers and no one else.

This is however what I see personally as one of the key problems with Twitter: there are so many ways in which misinterpretations can arise as a result of the 140-character limit, something not a problem when there's far more space to let your argument breathe as it were, and also so many who are more than willing to do the misinterpreting. In fact, from what I can tell from my ivory tower of disdain, that seems to be one of the reasons to use it when you're politically minded: to take part in pointless arguments with your ideological enemies while circle-jerking with your fellow-minded followers. While then Compton has been unfortunate, and Alibhai-Brown has been overwrought, he's brought it all on himself through his own stupidity, regardless of the considerations set out above. He certainly shouldn't be prosecuted, but he should have known better.

The same cannot be said for Chambers. When Judge Davies says "[A]nyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences", she's right but her point is also completely irrelevant. He couldn't have expected in his wildest nightmares for his throwaway tweet to be reported to the police, let alone for it to have been dealt with in such a way. Some people have long held that there are some subjects on which jokes should never be made; such a po-faced attitude is itself deserving of ridicule. It should always be whether the joke itself is funny or not, and that's for you personally to decide. When others are deciding that for us and doing so in the courts without the slightest understanding, it really is time to start wondering who the real enemies of freedom are.

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"Alibhai-Brown has been overwrought"

She makes a living out of being overwrought. How many other people have been arrested for threatening to kill her. None? Note her shrill response included a bit of Tory bashing. Who is the "nasty party" here, I wonder.

Ps. I know Compton was arrested under the Malicious Com act, but A-B called his comment incitement to murder.

"to take part in pointless arguments with your ideological enemies while circle-jerking with your fellow-minded followers"

Twitter: it's the new blogging!

Phil: Well yes, but some people seem to do it all day long.

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