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It’s official. Terrorism tweets are now the lèse majesté of the West

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 01.12.17By Simon Davies

A 14 year-old Netherlands girl was arrested yesterday for posting a Tweet that was claimed to be a terrorist threat against American Airlines.

“Hello, my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan”, the Tweet began, in classic Bin Laden style, concluding with: “I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m going to do something really big bye.”

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 00.59.42This arrest isn’t, however, an open-and-shut case of a necessary and proportionate response by law enforcement to a clear and present danger. Was this Tweet genuinely interpreted as a real terrorist threat, or were police acting out of blind instinct?

Or, even more interesting, were Dutch police merely obsessed with creating global headlines to further their own interests while ingratiating themselves with US security authorities? I speak hypothetically – for the moment.

According to news reports, the girl turned herself in to authorities in the Dutch city of Rotterdam when the tweet went viral after American Airlines had sent a response to the effect that her message was being passed to the FBI. She then engaged in a frenzy of apologetic tweets immediately after the offending message.

“I’m so stupid, I’m scared,” said one of the first replies from @QueenDemetriax_, the handle the girl had on her account when she sent the tweet.

She claimed to be a girl living in the Netherlands, adding: “I’m just a fangirl pls I don’t have evil thoughts and plus I’m a white girl.”

The Daily News notes “the Twitterverse soon filled with posters who took up Sarah’s pleas for leniency, laughed at her foolishness or speculated the whole thing was a hoax.” Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 01.00.00

This, it seems, wasn’t good enough for Dutch police – stung perhaps that they might be seen as either indolent or incapable in the face of such global interest. After all, this authority is proud of its technical investigative reputation.

Several unsettling questions remain. Why was the girl arrested upon surrender and “interrogated” when it’s clear to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of either terrorism or adolescent psychology that this was a stupid hoax and could be dealt with in a dozen less harmful and dramatic ways?

But of greater gravity is the matter of why the police sought the publicity in the first place. Rotterdam police had sent out a tweet saying the girl had been arrested and the investigation is continuing. Why? What interest is served by such an action?

It’s one thing to be a radicalised militant, and quite another to be a child whose case is paraded before the press as an “arrest and continuing investigation” when it appears that dangerous circumstances are nowhere in sight.

Perhaps the subsequent statement from Rotterdam police provides some insight: “We just thought it was necessary to bring this out mostly because of the fact that it caused a great deal of interest on the Internet.”

Collectively, Dutch police aren’t historically stupid, and even if they were, they have access to a vast real-time reserve of personal data from one of the most watched societies in the world. It would have taken three minutes to determine that the tweet was a sad joke and the child was acting like, well, a child.

Last October, the Volkskrant reported that some 35,000 threatening Tweets are sent in the Netherlands and 200 are so serious that the police take a closer look.

Someone is arrested or given a warning about a threat made via social media almost on a daily basis, Martine Vis, interim Rotterdam police chief and responsible for social media within the national force, told the paper.

Dutch News.nl commented that many of these matters involve teenagers, but others are members of interest groups or ‘radicalised’ individuals. Several Dutch teenagers have been arrested for threatening ‘bloodbaths’ at their schools.

All of which sharpens concerns that the treatment of this girl was unseemly and suspect. It’s one thing to be a radicalised militant, and quite another to be a child whose case is paraded before the press as an “arrest and continuing investigation” when it appears that dangerous circumstances are nowhere in sight.

Describing this case as an “absurd example” of the principle of investigating every threat, Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post opines:

“And it is just barely possible that if you waste a significant amount of time and resources investigating a threat by a Dutch teenager whose whole feed is named for her love of Demi Lovato, conclude that, in fact, she is a teenage fan of Demi Lovato who made a stupid prank, not an active member of al Qaeda — and then you actually arrest her, maybe the wasted time and resources are on you. Maybe this kind of one-size-fits-all approach is actually a problem.”

I agree with Petri that words must have consequences, but I also agree that there must be an ingredient of common sense and humanity. Given the countless similar examples it’s clear that such circumstances have become the lèse majesté of the Western world in which any word said in the wrong direction itself constitutes a criminal offence. There must be a a more sane and constructive approach.