When I was in ninth grade—hell, when I was in college—I didn’t know what an algorithm was. Now, my life—yours too—is ruled by the damn things. Absentmindedly click on something and within hours, you’re buried in a tsunami of more of the same, ultimately building into that $#@%storm that fuels social media: outrage.

You have to have robust critical thinking skills to avoid being sucked into the black vortex of reactive anger and unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, you know that artificial intelligence is going to make it just a whole lot worse. But before that dystopian funnel of doom is visited upon us, we can, for a few moments, contemplate the pathetic specter of Trevor Daniel Jacob, a snowboarder of some accomplishment who has achieved YouTube immortality by filming himself intentionally crashing an airplane. (YouTube immortality lasts about as long it takes the algorithm to sense a microsecond of boredom and send you, like a squirrel chasing a nut, to click on something else that will glaze your eyes just a little less.) Jacob actually hit the Tri-Fecta; he got himself on all three major news networks. Some feat.

While I hesitate to admit it, I find have a sort of perverse admiration for someone who could first think up such a galactically stupid stunt, persevere to carry it through and at least believe some viewers in the YouTubeverse would be galactically naïve enough to believe what they’re seeing is real. Or, if we’re gaslighting ourselves here, know full well it’s a hoax but the purveyor somehow has us in on the joke.

But is the joke worth a few years in the slammer?

I suppose we’re about to find out. After Jacob filmed his crash, he retrieved the wreckage from the site after telling investigators he didn’t know where it was. This, it turns out, is considered obstruction of a federal investigation and it’s bad. Very bad. I’ve seen reporting that suggests the max sentence for this felony crime is 20 years, but I can’t find the documentation to support that. I did find guidelines for five to 10 years.

But should such a crime that only minimally endangered anyone on the ground if it endangered them at all result in jail time? The only way I get to yes is to allow myself the outrage reaction to the stunt that fuels social media and gains additional animation from Jacob’s adroit success at casting GA in a bad light. Does 20 years in jail or even five violate the Eighth Amendment’s stricture against cruel and unusual punishment? After all, the felony part here involves pissing off the government. But yes, since we’re a nation of laws, living that creed means honoring the investigators meant to enforce laws, so looking the other way isn’t an option. I was curious enough about this to publish a poll on it and thus far, a strong plurality thought a five-year jail term (or more) was right, although one in five favored probation and a fine. Personally, I’d go with six months and a big fine.

It’s difficult to resist the urge to teach these damn YouTubers a lesson so they won’t do it again. That, I think, is where five years comes from. But be careful what you wish for in cheering the government to drop the hammer. That’s what they did in the Trent Palmer case, a far milder infraction than that committed by Jacob. Recall his certificate was suspended for 120 days after a resident complained that a low pass he made to attempt a landing at an RC field was reckless.

The FAA never should have bothered with enforcement. It should have done what many of us remember from a few decades ago. A friendly phone call with some fatherly advice. Or, at worst, a 709 ride as a refresher. Case closed.

The trouble with making examples so that others may fear to tread is that it’s abusive. And if you trust the administrative law process to mete out justice wisely and fairly, you’re dreaming. In the Palmer case, the administrative law judge overseeing the case said as much. The judge said the FAA’s investigatory work showed “negligence and carelessness and sloppiness …” Yet the case proceeded anyway and Palmer was sanctioned.

This is justice? More like a Star Chamber, in my view. The NTSB agrees with the FAA overwhelmingly on appeals. Palmer’s is one that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place. Yes, the Jacob case is different and egregious. It’s also a felony. But let’s all just be a little restrained in calling for harsh punishment for errant pilots. The law process we’re all subject to has little demonstrated history of wisdom, fairness and equality. 

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