Not Funny: How The OFAC Is Outlawing Even The Lamest Attempts At Humor Over Terrorist Fears
from the humor-me dept
It’s only been a couple months since we discussed some of the problems stemming from the US Treasury Department’s terrorism scary names of brown people list, namely that non-scary people with names similar or identical to maybe actual scary people suddenly can’t seem to use online services. Some term this “Islamophobia”, whereas I prefer to mark it as the type of government laziness combined with carpet-bomb approaches to governance that is far too common. Add to that the fact that banking institutions are also suddenly being tasked with checking their payment services against this watchlist, nabbing all kinds of innocents in the process, and you have a process that could be funny if it weren’t so frustrating.
But, when it comes to terrorism, we’re legislating funny out of the equation altogether, it seems. For example, one man’s $42 payment to a friend to reimburse him for drinks has been held in limbo because he tried to get funny in the memo section of the payment.
Telling a friend you’re paying him back for “ISIS beer funds!!!” is not a particularly good joke. I knew this as I was typing it at 2am on a Sunday, but what I did not know is that it’s an even worse joke on Venmo because the federal government will detain your $42.
Almost immediately after I hit send, Venmo—you know, the app that allows people to send money to each other via their phones—blasted an e-mail into my inbox. The company wanted to “better understand a recent payment.”
Obviously this started because of some automatic flag on the word “ISIS.” And for that, one can hardly blame Venmo. Is it unlikely that a terrorist is going to send $42 to another terrorist to pay him back for alcohol, of all things, as part of their terrorist-y network? Sure, that’s unlikely. But do we want the financial system running some general check against common terror groups and references to make sure money isn’t falling into their hands? Of course.
But when Ben Guarino responded to Venmo to try to explain, choosing to call the whole thing a typo error instead of an admittedly lame joke, that meant that someone from Venmo was manually looking at the situation. And the result wasn’t any better.
Venmo wasn’t buying it. “Unfortunately,” wrote someone who signed the e-mail as Heather, “due to OFAC regulations, we are not allowed to give the funds back to you or issue a refund.” Because I don’t regularly bump into terrorists or sicarios at Whole Foods, I had no clue what an OFAC was. As it goes, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is a decades-old institution, quietly working to keep money out of the hands of America’s enemies. In 1962, the Division of Foreign Assets Control—which President Harry Truman had used to block transfers destined for North Korea and China—metamorphosed into OFAC. This association now has to deal with tipsy hipsters grasping at wit through instant payment apps.
And that’s where this whole practice breaks down into the land of the dumb. Look, Guarino’s joke was both dumb and not particularly funny, by my estimation. But here’s the thing: if your terrorist money-traps are nabbing hipster dudes trading 42 whole dollars for drinks, with a full explanation of where the drinks were had as well, then the program is no longer serving its purpose. Instead, we should admit that we’ve let fear grip our government institutions to such a degree that those institutions are trying to pass off annoying our citizens as a necessary trade for our safety. If that isn’t the stated goal of terrorism, I don’t know what is.
As of this writing, the OFAC still has Guarino’s $42 sitting in limbo, having given him a case number for his request to have it released and nothing else. And America lived to see another day, I suppose.