July 21, 2003

"Suspected Terrorist", or Troll? - John Gilmore and security

"Suspected Terrorist" button gets Gilmore ejected from airplane is the title of John Gilmore's story, now making the rounds.

I greatly admire John Gilmore as a civil-libertarian. That does not mean I think he is always right.

I've finally figured out what bothers me so much about this incident.

In effect, Gilmore was doing a millionaire's version of trolling.

It's a super-scaled-up version of what kiddies do on discussion boards and blog comments.

The sequence is as follows: Do something you KNOW will provoke people (proclaiming "Suspected Terrorist"). Then, when you find someone who bites, when the provocation succeeds, slap your knee in glee that they have been so stupid, so dumb, such idiots, as to react to the obvious troll. ("But I would be hard pressed to come up with a security measure more useless and intrusive than turning a plane around because of a political button on someone's lapel.")

As the reaction progresses, fuel it with liberal amounts of accusations regarding free-speech and I'm-being-censored ("I declined, saying that it was a political statement and that he had no right to censor passengers' political speech ... Ultimately, I was refused passage because I would not censor myself at her command.")

Almost everyone has to content themselves with doing this in comment sections, to a minor audience. Gilmore has managed this on an airplane, and to a huge audience ("They turned the plane around and brought it back to the gate, delaying 300 passengers on a full flight.")

I absolutely believe he is sincere in his beliefs. But he's still doing the 100% classic troll-pattern. Just not insincerely.

Now, the logic error, is that this presented as being a matter of a "political statement". But crew didn't find the politics themselves threatening. What they seemed found threatening was the possibility that some dumb, stupid, idiot might get panicked by the speech ("She said that passengers and crew are nervous about terrorism and that mentioning it bothers them, and that is grounds to exclude me"). But given that they would have to deal with the panic, and Gilmore would not, they made it a condition of the flight that Gilmore not do the speech they feared might panic someone.

It's very easy to shift away, to go debate an abstract general principle, rather than given the specific context right here, in an airplane, the consequences of someone panicking could be severe. And it's not obvious that he has a legal or even a social right to do political theatre IN THIS TIME, PLACE, AND MANNER.

In almost any other circumstances, I'd be on his side. But poking panicky people on long airflights is not laudable. He's pushing people's buttons about "security". But stripped of the veneer of reflexive opposition to airport staff, this is merely trolling.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in politics , security | on July 21, 2003 10:54 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Good discussion. I know when I read the story that I thought he was being an idiot, and that there just wasn't any "free speech" story there. You've said it carefully and, I think, correctly.

Posted by: Walt Crawford at July 22, 2003 11:31 AM