The easiest way to stop any crime is to catch the would-be assailant just before he commits his crime. For example, if the mass murderer responsible for the Florida school shooting was apprehended as he was readying his weapons, just before opening fire, this would be an open and shut case of good law enforcement.
Barring this, if someone is an undisputed member of a gang or terror group whose goal is to kill, this can also be an effective way to prevent a tragedy before it happens. If this isn’t possible, law enforcement often looks for what people are saying in public. In the 21st century, this typically means statements made in public or semi-public online social media outlets and this is where the big problems begin.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a would-be school shooter gives detailed plans of what he seeks to do online. Let’s say he names the school in question, the type of people he seeks to victimise and even the names of those he intends to harm. This is again, a fairly open and shut issue. However, expressing feelings of anger which in the course of natural conversation often lead to expressions of violence can easily be mistaken for an actual threat when in reality, such remarks are merely said in the heat of the moment and by any rational interpretation should be readily dismissed as such.
Even worse, in the context of satire, dark humour or edgy humour, many things can be said which could could be interpreted by something with no imagination or sense of humour as a genuine threat, when far from even letting off steam, such remarks are calculated pieces of art (however low the art might be) designed to elicit an emotional reaction from an audience. This is no different than what any stand-up comedian does on a regular basis.
And yet, whenever a tragedy such as the Florida school shooting occurs, many are naturally alarmed that it could not be prevented. The reality is that, if a madman with weapons – any variety of weapons wants to commit a crime, there is little one can do to stop such a person barring the rational scenarios outlined above. Simply using strong language on-line or in real life is by no means an admission of future guilt in a crime.
It seems though that in today’s America, people jump at every opportunity to limit their constitutional rights. In this case, the right in question is the right to free speech as guaranteed by the first amendment to the US constitution. If people who have not committed any violent act and have not made what can reasonably interpreted to be a specific threat are harassed by the FBI or local police, then the first amendment is as good as dead. As for those who think that US law enforcement is intelligent enough to draw such distinctions, I invite them to travel at any US airport where federal TSA employees treat anyone seeking to fly on a plane as a terrorist. Actual criminals are treated with more dignity in many countries. These people are famous unintelligent and famously lacking in a sense of humour. If such individuals are to be judge, jury and executioner when it comes to policing free speech, Americans can kiss their right to speak and think freely goodbye forever. Is the US really willing to surrender free speech to a humourless mob of vendetta driver tin soldiers? One would hope not.
While similar arguments are made to justify the second amendment to the US constitution which guarantees the right to bear firearms, it seems that there are no powerful lobby groups for the first amendment, in the way that that National Riffle Association (NRA) strongly lobbies to protect the second amendment.
The fact that censorship has become vogue in the United States is incredibly worrying as for all of the numerous faults in American society, the one thing it had going for it was the cherished first amendment. It was the saving grace in an otherwise tarnished society. Now, free speech is being demonised from all walks of life, from those who think that censoring speech they do not enjoy hearing is necessary for their mental health to those who think that censoring colourful language could someone prevent crimes like the shooting at the Florida school.
The truth is that censoring people’s free speech will not result in anything positive, it will only result in the psychological castration of an entire nation whose entire essence was allegedly based on the right to speak your mind freely.
Today the United States is a country where people want their countrymen arrested for making what they think are online threats, even if the person making the allegedly threatening statement has never held a gun in his life. Today, the United States is a country where state and local government can instigate boycotts against individuals who they feel are boycotting a foreign entity: Israel. Today, the United States is a country where people are forced to register as foreign agents if they work with Russians and are called un-American if they say something positive about Iran. Instead, the US has become a country where edgy, controversial, powerful or distasteful but harmless free speech is censored and its creators harassed while Orwellian newspeak, double-speak and utter insincerity, shaped by the censorship of that which is sincere, prevail.
If the United States cannot offer free speech, it cannot offer anything. Sadly, it is many of America’s own citizens who are busily engaged in trying to destroy its greatest asset.