When April Fools get rather too serious
The News and Star reported this week how two 18-year old apprentices in West Cumbria were arrested and suspended from their jobs after an April Fool prank was taken as a potential terrorist threat and caused 65 people to be evacuated. You can read the full story here.
There is an important balance which should apply in our attitude to humour. Provided that it does not cause genuine inconvenience, suffering, or danger, it ought to be possible to enjoy a joke without anyone over-reacting. But some jokes go over the top.
At some point in the past twenty years Britain seems to have gone from erring on one side to the other in our attitude to humour. For many years we were a bit too tolerant of cruel jokes. C.S. Lewis, best known for the "Narnia" children's books but also a distinguished writer on literature and religion, once wrote that the English obsession with humour meant some unpleasant people had discovered that they could get away with almost any act of cruelty if it could somehow get itself passed off as a joke.
Now we have gone to the other extreme, and it is a regular occurrence for professional comedians, many on the political left as well as the right, to protest at badly drafted, politically correct legislation against "thought crimes" which will catch humour, whether ill-intentioned or not, as well as genuine nastiness.
However, we must not criticise those who are responsible for protecting people against potential terrorist threats if they fail to see the funny side of a joke while taking security decisions.
Police and security officials have to bear in mind that real terrorists or criminals might try to use humour as a "double bluff" to disguise their activities. If someone claims to be carrying a bomb on the way into an airport, as one or two jokers have, it may be probable that they are just a cretin who thinks they are being funny. But where lives could be at risk, no security officer can afford to ignore the possibility that this is Al-Qaeda's latest tactic.
When a security guard and other witnesses saw two men leave a van in a restricted car park for a company providing services to the nuclear industry, and leave the area through nearby fields, they could hardly afford to ignore the possiblity that this really was a terrorist incident instead of a silly joke.
The same test which is often suggested for science and medicine is not a bad rule of thumb for humour: "First, do no harm."