American Airlines tweets the wrong message. Photographer: Eliot J. Schechter/Bloomberg
American Airlines tweets the wrong message. Photographer: Eliot J. Schechter/Bloomberg

When police in Rotterdam arrested a 14-year-old girl for writing a menacing tweet aimed at American Airlines, they and the airline apparently wanted to teach her a lesson. One has to wonder whether it was the right one.

Granted, the girl, named Sarah and known on Twitter as @QueenDemetriax_, made a really dumb joke. Here's what she tweeted to American Airlines: "hello my name's Ibrahim and I'm from Afghanistan. I'm part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I'm gonna do something really big bye." The airline responded: "Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI." A long string of apologies and further lame attempts at humor followed from Sarah. She begged: "pls pls pls can I do something to make it good pls I'm so scared I'm just a 14 year old white girl I'm not a terrorist pls."

Sarah was telling the truth when she said that she wasn't a terrorist, as the police work demonstrated. American Airlines, by contrast, was lying when it claimed it had Sarah's IP address and "details." In the aftermath of the scandal, one of Twitter's official bloggers reminded the public of the network's guidelines. All the airline could do was ask a law enforcement agency to file an emergency disclosure request, which Twitter would honor if a real threat existed. In this case, even though the threat was clearly bogus, Twitter honored the request simply because it is accepted practice to take airline security extra seriously.

Interestingly, the airline's reaction to Sarah's prank led to other "terrorist" tweets like "Hello my name is Ibrahim I think you guys are the BOMB!!!!!!" One hopes they won't get arrested, too. Though most people would agree joking about airplane bombings is in extremely bad taste, especially after Sept. 11, going after silly 14-year-old Sarah with police hardly made for safer air travel.

The Sept. 11 attacks taught the world not to skimp on airline and airport security. Even the remotest risks are not taken lightly. It is next to impossible to assemble a working explosive device from liquids brought on-board: The Transportation Security Administration admitted back in 2008 that "a National Lab was asked to formulate a test mixture and it took several tries using the best equipment and best scientists for it to even ignite." Still, the TSA kept the restrictions on liquids in carry-on luggage because it wanted to eliminate even the slightest chance of someone trying to copy the Trans-Atlantic Aircraft Plot of 2006.

A paper published in the Journal of Air Traffic Management this year claims airports are too safe: "It was found that attack probabilities had to be much higher than currently observed rates of attack to justify protective measures." In Russia, for example, all luggage is scanned prior to entering the terminal -- a practice that costs millions of dollars a year and adds nothing to the obligatory security check before boarding. At Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, painstaking luggage searches routinely make people late for their flights, so passengers are warned to arrive at least three hours before takeoff. I was once questioned by an irate security officer for coming just 90 minutes before my flight.

Though some passengers complain, most agree with the policy of trying to eliminate even the smallest risks. I don't mind suspending the laws of probability in the case of air travel. People who are even mildly aerophobic get much-needed psychological comfort from all the elaborate safety arrangements. I never grumble when I'm searched or when Chinese airport security confiscates my lighter. For some reason lighters are banned on planes in China, though the U.S. canceled a similar ban in 2007. Perhaps in the Asian country's particular experience they are still dangerous.

I do, however, object to cases like that of Englishman Paul Chambers, who, in 2010, was found guilty of sending a "menacing message." The offending tweet: "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your s--- together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high." The context: He had tickets to fly to Northern Ireland to visit a woman he'd met online, and the airport had been closed due to snow. It took intervention by human-rights activists to get the conviction overturned.

I take even bigger exception to the harassment of a child by a large company with access to law enforcement. Children can be silly, and it is sometimes useful to give them a slap on the wrist. In doing so, it is important not to lie to them, otherwise they will doubt your moral right to punish them. Nor is excessive punishment useful. Both the lie and the harshness must have been what provoked Twitter users to pester American Airlines with more bogus threats. The lesson misfired.

Suspending common sense is not the same as ignoring probabilities. Anyone reading Sarah's tweet could have easily seen who she was by reading the other entries in her account. It was not worth the trouble even to get her details from Twitter. Explaining to the girl right then and there that airline security was no joke, and extracting an apology, would have been sufficient. Making a point too strongly sometimes defeats the purpose of making it in the first place.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.