You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?
You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?
No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.
It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.
But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.
In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.
Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.
Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.
Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.
The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.
In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.
If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.
And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.