The Washington Post

If you think the American Airline bomb tweets are ‘satire,’ you don’t understand what satire is

A passenger walks through an American Airlines baggage claim area at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh/ AP)

In the wake of a 14-year-old Dutch girl’s arrest for tweeting a threat to American Airlines, dozens of copycats took to Twitter to make bomb “jokes” of their own. Eighteen hours after the event, those quote marks remain 100 percent necessary. The tweets still aren’t funny, still not provocative, and still not “political satire” or “protest against the surveillance state,” as many of those commenting on the story have insisted.

Don’t get me wrong: We need both political satire and protests, and there is something self-evidently ridiculous about a teenager getting interrogated for an idiotic tweet. But this isn’t satire, by satire’s very definition. Here’s the Columbia Encyclopedia on the subject:

From ancient times satirists have shared a common aim: to expose foolishness in all its guises — vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry, sentimentality — and to effect reform through such exposure.

But the “foolishness” these would-be satirists are protesting isn’t foolishness at all. An airline, which had planes hijacked on 9/11, received what appeared to be a terrorist threat. The airline reported that threat in accordance with the Homeland Security Department’s much-publicized guidelines, which urge even private citizens to report suspicious activity as apparently innocuous as “an unattended backpack.” The threatener, knowing the game was up, later turned herself in.

The medium doesn’t matter, nor the fact that the sender was actually 14. At the time of the initial threat, whatever beleaguered social media manager who saw it knew only that he or she had gotten a threat and a response was warranted. That isn’t foolishness — it’s common sense.

That becomes even clearer in contrast to, say, the “Colbert Report” satire recently in the news: A Twitter post reference to a “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” may have sparked controversy, but it did expose a specific hypocrisy that deserved ridicule.

Maybe the protest is bigger than that, some have said. Maybe this satire is aimed at the surveillance state, in its overarching, knee-jerky ubiquity. Maybe it’s aimed less at the actual actions of American Airlines and more at the cultural and political climate that made those actions necessary. They’re protesting, in other words, the idea that all threats need to be taken seriously. They’re protesting fear.

And that’s understandable, because this type of vigilant, humorless caution can make the world a tiring place. But it’s not foolish, per se, and it’s not immediately resolvable. That makes this latest round of copycat tweets less a protest than a temper tantrum: This is a problem so all-encompassing, so miasmic, that there’s nothing we can do about it except tell stupid jokes.

In an essay last year about political and subversive satire, the British novelist Jonathan Coe worried about just that issue: The growing dominance of a “tired, Pavlovian” strain of humor that is less a strike at the establishment, and more a kind of resignation to it.

“Laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest,” he writes — “it actually replaces protest” (emphasis mine).

Telling American Airlines you’re planning to bomb a flight might seem like a strike against the culture that takes such threats seriously. But in the end, it’s just an artifice: meant to distance yourself from a culture you are, like it or not, a part of … at the expense of everyone else.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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