Imagination = Terrorism

Jeff VanderMeer has decided to rant about the latest case of a student being arrested for writing a short story that disturbed some of the Powers That Be. (More reports here and here.) I was going to comment at Jeff's site, but some thoughts began to percolate through the back recesses of my so-called brain, thoughts about the current American hatred of (among other things) imagination.

Nearly a year ago, I noted a similar case, though last year's involved a college student. I think there have been a few such cases since, and now this. An eighteen-year-old arrested and charged because his grandparents found some things he had written and called the police. Arrested not for doing anything other than writing; jailed not for making a specific threat to anyone, but for writing something that might, perhaps, be possible to be maybe construed (if looked at with the proper lens) as a threat to an unnamed high school.

Or maybe it's what the kid says it was: A short story. Fiction. A work of the imagination. About zombies.

Unfortunately, such fiction is illegal in Kentucky:
Under Kentucky law, a person is guilty of terroristic threatening in the second degree when they threaten to "commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury" to students, teachers or employees of a school.

"A threat directed at a person or persons or at a school does not need to identify a specific person or persons or school in order for a violation of this section to occur," the law reads.
Specific people and places don't need to be mentioned. How, then, can a threat be made?

As many people have said, such cases are not about terrorism, but thought crime. The writer of the story is being prosecuted for ideas, for things he imagined. Did his grandparents find pieces of a bomb in his room, or a cache of guns under his bed? No. Just a story he wrote.

Here's a story for you: When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote a short story about a boy and his father who go on a hunting trip. They drive into a city, go to the top of a skyscraper, and start shooting down into the streets. (If I remember correctly, I was inspired to write the story after reading something in one of Charles L. Grant's horror anthologies.)

My eighth grade teacher, who was one of the best teachers I ever had, liked the story and had me read parts of it aloud to the class.

Today, that teacher would be fired, and I would have been sent, at the very least, to counseling, because if she knew about a story like that and didn't report it to the principal, it is likely a parent of one of the other students would hear about the story, become horrified, and call the superintendent of the district to complain about the dangerous people allowed to roam free in the local middle school.

It probably wouldn't help things that my father owns a gun shop.

Yes, I, the son of a gun-shop owner, wrote a story about a boy and his father going into a major city and shooting people for fun. My teacher knew I wasn't a psychopath, but that I was a voracious reader of horror fiction, and she knew I was trying to write in the style and manner of the writers whose work I admired. She was not surprised later to see that I grew up to be a pacifist and vegetarian. (She left the local school district a few years after teaching me and went to work for the state prison, teaching writing and reading. She likes it better than working in a public school.)

I often feel that Americans no longer understand what imagination is. Writers are routinely psychologized based on their writings, a practice that is akin to reading tea leaves to predict the stock market. There may be many causes for this new Puritanism -- all the psychobabbling TV talk shows, the rise of passive entertainments that don't need viewers to engage imaginatively with them, the decline of this that or another thing -- but I'm not sure any particular cause or series of causes have led to our current situation so much as the irrational, knee-jerk paranoia that various politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists have so exploited for their own purposes. A society that is more skilled at fear than imagination is one that can be manipulated, controlled, and pacified with shock tactics.

I'm not saying anything new here, I know. But if anything is going to combat is idiotic, fascistic paranoia that continues to explode around us, it may be our willingness to stubbornly and loudly repeat things we already know: That thoughts are not actions; that writing is a form of imagination, not terrorism; that fiction is not reality; that it's entirely possible for a perfectly nice and harmless person to write really dark, disturbing stories.

If you think what's going on in Kentucky is just an isolated case of closed-mindedness, read the Censoround blog for a few days. Again and again, small groups of fanatics are whipping up mobs in favor of censorship and the destruction of free thought, and these people deserve to be exposed as the thugs they are.

Update 3/9/05: Gwenda points to this news story:
And, as it turns out, Poole's writings include no brain-eating dead folks.

What they do contain, Winchester police Detective Steven Caudill testified yesterday, is evidence that he had tried to solicit seven fellow students to join him in a military organization called No Limited Soldiers.

The writings describe a bloody shootout in "Zone 2," the designation given to Clark County.

"All the soldiers of Zone 2 started shooting," Caudill read on the witness stand. "They're dropping every one of them. After five minutes, all the people are lying on the ground dead."

The papers contain two different dates of Poole's death.

Poole has corresponded with someone in Barbourville who claimed to have acquired cash and guns in break-ins, Caudill testified.

No other arrests are pending, he said, but authorities are looking for other potential suspects listed in Poole's papers who are identified only by pseudonyms.

District Judge Brandy O. Brown ordered the documents put under seal because they contain references to juveniles. She sent the case to the grand jury and rejected a request from Poole's attorney to lower his $5,000 cash bond. He is being held in the Clark County jail. [...]

Authorities had released little information about the nature of the threats, and many people assumed from the WLEX story that Poole had been made a victim.

Caudill said he had received more than 50 e-mails and perhaps a dozen "nasty phone calls."

But after school shootings such as the one at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people died, authorities must take threats seriously, he said in an interview.

"Do we as a society want the police to stop there -- that he didn't mean it?" he asked. "I'm not going to take that responsibility and have children's and police officers' blood on my hands."
It will be interesting to see what else comes out of this one, if anything. Seems like too much of a mess of conflicting reports to be able to second-guess it all, but I continue to think the law (as presented) is too vague and the evidence that has so far been reported is thin. But we may never know what all of the evidence actually is, given that minors may be involved (or at least named).

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