A 19 year old by the name of Justin Carter has been in jail since February for making a joke on the Internet. In jail. Did you get that part? In jail. He is sitting in jail for an inappropriate joke. After playing a multi-player video game, another player called Justin “crazy.” Justin responded, clearly in jest, by saying “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still beating hearts.” He then added an “lol” and a “jk,” just to make it clear that he is not, actually, a psychotic cannibal who devours the organs of small children. Now, the joke was vulgar, violent and wrong. Wash his mouth out with soap and lecture him about sensitivity. Fine. But jail? Apparently, a Canadian woman saw the comment and called the cops. The cops showed up at his house, searched it, found no weapons, no indication that any laws had been broken, no evidence that any flesh-eating rampage was actually in the works, no evidence of suspicious activity at all, but, of course, arrested him anyway. He now sits in a cell facing 8 years in prison.
The good news is that apparently nobody is committing real crimes anymore. There aren’t any rapists, killers, kidnappers and burglars left to find. We are living in a veritable Utopia. Cops and judges still need jobs, though, which is why we now have them out cracking the Case of the Crass Internet Joketeller, not to mention tracking down and bring to justice the Infamous Middle School NRA T-Shirt Wearer. The bad news, on the other hand, is that I’m in a whole heap of trouble if sarcasm is illegal. Not to mention, if inappropriate jokes and violent or vulgar statements are criminalized, that means we need to arrest every single person who has ever left a comment under any YouTube video, not to mention half of the people who have made YouTube videos.
Some have pointed to this story as an indication that free speech is under attack. They’re wrong. Free speech isn’t under attack for the same reason the Titanic isn’t sinking. You’ve got your tenses mixed up. The Titanic can’t sink, because it already sank. It’s now at the bottom of the Atlantic being crapped on by sharks. Similarly, free speech can’t be under attack, because it died a long time ago. What we are witnessing now is the defiling of its lifeless corpse. (DISCLAIMER: Please don’t arrest me for using that imagery. I’m speaking metaphorically. I’m neither aware of, nor involved in, the actual defilement of any physical corpse, human or otherwise.)
To me, the real truth of the Justin Carter case is this: We want it this way. Anytime a madman goes out and commits a heinous and murderous act, we demand that the government “do something.” Politicians, including the president, stand in front of cameras and vow to “make sure this sort of thing never happens again.” We applaud these sentiments. We insist on hearing these sentiments. But why? Is there any way to stop all bad things from happening in a country where men and women are truly free? Can we attempt to predict and prevent every possible crime and still retain our liberties? No. Obviously. These things require an environment of restriction, suspicion and control, and that’s what we have. Welcome to America. We’ve become so deathly afraid that now we’d rather assume someone to be a future mass killer (highly unlikely) and punish him accordingly, than assume him to simply be a dumb teenager (a near certainty). Gotta be on the safe side, right? The government encourages us to psychologically profile each other. They goad us into treating anyone whose behavior, language or actions falls outside the established norms as a ticking time bomb in need of containment and defusing. A couple of days ago, here in Lexington, an entire city block was shutdown for several hours because of a “suspicious package” someone tried to stuff inside a mailbox. As per usual, it turned out to be nothing. The bomb squad went home, they took down the police barricades, things opened back up and everyone carried on with their lives. I suppose, when it comes to errant boxes and peculiar brief cases, this reaction is justifiable, even if 99 percent of the “suspicious packages” are really quite harmless. But is it wise for us to treat “suspicious” people like suspicious packages? It doesn’t take much for a package to be deemed potentially lethal, it’s beginning to be even easier for a person to earn the designation.
At a certain point we have to make some choices. You can’t hide in that blessed “grey area” anymore. Do you stand for free speech and liberty or would you rather trade them in for a feeling of security? Choose one. You can’t have both.