Top 10 reasons not to joke

So what were those three medical students really chatting about while enjoying the cuisine at a Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun, Ga.? Eunice Stone, sitting nearby, said they were making jovial but alarming remarks about 9/11, and also talked about "bringing it down." Her call to authorities triggered a manhunt that eventually closed several miles of I-75 in Florida while officers detained the suspects but found no evidence of sinister plotting.

A news account that I found especially intriguing said investigators believed the incident "may have been the work of smart alecks, not fanatics."

Indeed, Ms. Stone herself hinted at such a possibility when she explained to one network how her son, after sizing up the situation in the restaurant, issued this opinion: "Oh Mama, they're just messing with you."

Suppose for a moment the boy had it nailed, and the three amigos were actually doing a little spontaneous guerrilla comedy about 9/11 anxiety. Should anyone have a problem with that? After all, smart-aleck humor that's subversive and tweaks the sensibilities of mainstream society is an American tradition that includes such famous practitioners as Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Pryor.

But wait, you say, there's nothing funny about blowing up buildings and mass murder. No argument there. However, now that "Saturday Night Live" and the late-night talk shows have opened the floodgates on jokes about the war against terror, it's going to be tough to restrict the flow.

The studio audience howls with glee whenever David Letterman serves up something like "Top 10 Reasons Osama Isn't Getting a Good Night's Sleep These Days." But I have a feeling if three guys who looked Middle Eastern went into a comedy club on amateur night and recited "Top 10 Places Where Dick Cheney Can Be Found Hiding During The Next Red Alert," they would not be called back for an encore.

I'm still ambivalent about 9/11 humor. Yes, I've heard the experts say we need laughter, even after a horrible tragedy, because it's a way of relieving grief and anger. But any time you mock a subject, there's an implication that it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. Over time, as the jokes pile up, complex issues can become trivialized.

Unfortunately there's no way to unring the comedy bell. Congress can't add a Humor Control Amendment to the Homeland Security Act. There are surely going to be a lot of overheard conversations during the war on terrorism, and many of them will probably include punchlines that are in bad taste or even inflammatory.

We have only ourselves to blame for creating a social climate that applauds snide, irreverent comments about every facet of life. My big worry is that this attitude, which is supposed to help us all "lighten up," will eventually have the unintended side effect of creating cynicism, suspicion, and hostility toward fellow citizens who don't share our point of view. If that happens, then Osama and his pals will end up with the last laugh.

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