The power of words

After the Robin Hood airport closed (Doncaster, Sheffield) due to heavy snowfall, Mr. Chamber wrote a twitter post that was meant as a joke to friends and ended to be taken seriously by police officers. I quote the terms as they are essential: “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”.
He may be charged under the Terrorism Act with conspiring to create a bomb hoax.

Tessa Mayes (privacy law and free speech legal issues), according to the article, said “Making jokes about terrorism is considered a thought crime, mistakenly seen as a real act of harm or intention to commit harm”.

Several thoughts come to mind. Yes, any offence that does not require a tangible result and/or a tangible action not based on words (like buying explosives) tips the law towards thought crimes. Some hate crimes can be considered as thought crimes as what is punished is the expression of a thought qualified as being hatred. So some offences linked with terrorism (incitement to, for example; or here the conspiracy to create a bomb hoax) are in that sense a thought crime. Now, this is a choice: Parliament approved its condemnation; others disagree. The question is which power do we want to give to words? Where we draw the line is never easy and I don’t think complete freedom of expression should prevail, nor I do share the Government’s perception of security and necessity.

Beside this issue and debate, what I find interesting here, is the simple fact that I do not see how the offence of conspiracy to create a bomb hoax can even be committed, given the context. Obviously, the facts can only be analysed in view of what happened at the time (not in view of the fact that no hoax emerged); but given the weather, the airport closure and the Twitter type of interaction, it is difficult to take the post seriously. It is a silly post and the person who wrote it should have been a bit more conscious of his responsibility; but I can’t imagine the offence existing in all its elements.
“Twitter joke led to Terror Act arrest and airport life ban“, The Independent, 18 January 2010

On a similar note, -the power we want to give to words and where we draw the line between dignity of the person/victim and freedom of speech-, are the attacks Richard Dawkins, the atheist, endured. I do not share his atheist (and that does not make me a creationist, because frankly to consider that the world was created in seven days is a total negation of the bible’s message which has nothing to do with providing a history of human kind, but an understanding of our present day situation- In hebrew, Genesis starts by “Bereshit”, in other words, in principle, in the principle, not as most latin languages versions put it, “at the beginning” which implies a timeline – and while I am at it, Eve is not Eve until after the transgression: before the transgression, he is Ishah, the other side of Adam called Ish, like in Chinese medicine the Ying and Yang, the masculine and feminin of Man). So back to our story: I do not share his views but it would never occur to me to write with vicious language.
Now, even if it is improper, should we leave people free to do so? Freedom of speech tells that that even not pleasurable speech should be heard. But should we allow speech that fosters tribalism as the article puts it, or hate of others as I would put it? UK law has answered by saying no in specific situations (clear hatred of race, religion, sexual orientation and disability to some extent), but did not say anything for the rest. So is it all about education of people? education about words, their power and who we are in which society.

The author wrote a book on Cyburbia: the Dangerous Idea That’s changing How We Live and WHo We Are, London 2009 (my next reading at Cambridge in a few weeks).
When the net’s wisdom of crowds turns into an online lynch mob” James Harkin, The Observer, 28 February 2010, page 31

The whole story made me think of an earlier article about a journalist, Lee Siegel, who was so tired of the vicious comments he used to receive on his blog that he created a personna to counteract it, with nobody realising it was the same person. 1) It says a lot about the degree of analysis use by people (one should be able to recognise a style), 2) It says a lot about what speech is used for, in his case, silencing dissent (against Bush’s policies). “Truth and consequences“, The Guardian, 27 May 2008
And about distortion of words and its consequences on everyday life: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “Freedom of speech can’t be unlimited“, The Independent, 6 July 2009

If words were not powerful, they would not be used, including to start war or strenghten one’s side. “PR groups cash in on Russian conflict“, The Guardian, 24 August 2009

About Audrey Guinchard

Senior Lecturer @ University of Essex (UK)
This entry was posted in Offences - Terrorism, Social networking - Twitter. Bookmark the permalink.

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