Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pat Down Follow-Up

Wednesday's Opt-Out protests failed to substantially disrupt holiday travel. But ongoing discussions of enhanced passenger screening at airports throw light on various political fault lines.

Libertarians versus Liberals: When writers at The Nation depicted protests against invasive airport procedures as an "astroturf" movement, sponsored by rightwing billionaires, Salon's Glenn Greenwald penned a devastating critique. Exchanges continue, but one thinks Greenwald is well ahead on points. There was a time when liberals and libertarians were united in opposition to state invasions of privacy. If untrammeled Internet and email data-mining was bad under the Bush administration, then surely the new airport procedures, implemented under a Democratic president, ought to draw the same scrutiny.
Racial Disjunctures: Unnecessary stops and frisks are nothing new, of course. Writing for TruthDig, David Coleman notes that in the nation’s airports "non-minority airline passengers who seek to board an airplane are being sensitized to the indignities that are a routine part of the lives of some men of color who merely walk or drive down a street." The extension of warrantless searches to new populations logically ought to provide opportunity not just for a "snicker of schadenfreude" but also for wider discussions of everyday violations of civil liberties.
The Usual Distractions: Red herrings, false arguments, and a good dose of paranoia abound in the ongoing fracas: the figure of the imperiled child continues to loom large in the debates, as do false claims that backscatter body scans pose a health hazard. One would think the TSA was a pedophile ring, contriving excuses to grope and fondle, and the FDA--which approved the present body scans--as reckless with the public's health as tobacco companies. It seems symptomatic of the present political climate that these concerns have often dominated discussion of the issue.
Arguments about Efficacy: Deterrence, as opposed to detection, is notoriously difficult to prove. The new airport screening methods have not been shown to be effective, and some critics are using the term "security theater" to describe their presumed psychological effects: the public is made to feel safer without actually being more secure. State actions are often for show, but it seems doubtful that these exhibitions make the public feel safer. And would efficacy really be sufficient cause to convince principled opponents? No doubt a combination body scan, pat down, and cavity search for everyone boarding a plane would be ruthlessly effective. Presumably, however, this would not be acceptable.

The Pooh-Poohers: Frank Rich has argued that enhanced TSA procedures are just not that important, and that the reaction to them is symptomatic of a general malaise--a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the country. I think he misses the point. Whatever the intended theatrical effect of the pat down, its real effect is to cause blameless citizens to routinely perform rituals of subordination: to submit, hands on head, to searches and interrogations. Authoritarian under any definition of the term, these procedures subtract from preexisting rights. They inculcate in the public new forms of passivity and obedience. This is sufficient cause--the only good cause--for opposing the new procedures.
And on this point, the protections set out in the Fourth Amendment could not be clearer: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pat Down

“You touch my junk and I’m going to have you arrested.” John Tyner’s now-famous line has become a rallying cry for resistance to new invasive screening procedures at airports. The response of the TSA agent’s supervisor was revealing: “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.” Or as TSA head John Pistole explained to the American public, flying is a privilege, not a right.

Meanwhile, stories of humiliation at airport check-ins continue to draw media attention. A bladder cancer survivor was left covered in urine when a pat down opened the seal on his urostomy bag. A flight attendant who had had a mastectomy was asked to remove the prosthetic breast inside her bra. But it was Tyner’s refusal to be scanned or patted down, recorded on his iPhone then posted on the Internet, that went viral: “I don’t understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying.”

As with expanded surveillance programs in the wake of September 11, 2001, the new invasive procedures are “for your own good,” of course. The Underwear Bomber concealed explosives in his underwear, after all. And sources say that U.S. intelligence has picked up terrorist discussions of how to use medical prosthetic devices to conceal bombs.

Public opinion polls continue to suggest that a majority of Americans support enhanced security measures at airports, although disapproval of pat downs is rising quickly. But for the time being, invasive airport screening has fostered an unusual alliance of left and right. Glenn Beck and some Tea Party groups are taking the position that body scans and pat downs constitute a form of sexual assault. “First a Hand on Your Crotch, Next a Boot in Your Face” reads the headline from a left website.

Ongoing discussions, I suggest, reveal much about the state of the state and how the basic script for governance today cleaves to the plotline of the panic narrative. First, extreme events grab headlines; horrendous crimes, tales of sexual predation, or isolated terror attacks foster a sense of insecurity. Second, moral entrepreneurs stoke outrage to mobilize public opinion, and political actors respond by passing new laws. The result is an ongoing devolution of the state to its penal functions. A crime-control approach—an emphasis on surveillance, preemption, and punishment—displaces a welfare approach, a focus on wellbeing in the round. By degrees, liberal governance becomes increasingly illiberal.

This basic plotline is subject to many variations, and in the present case we see a curious recurring phenomenon, which I have described this way: “When actors caught up in moral panics around sex, crime, and terror themselves become objects of a moral panic, the friction of the one panic within and against the other then becomes a resource for the intensification of the punitive state.”

What seems most striking in current headlines is the mobilization of sexual anxieties in the resistance to newly invasive procedures. It’s actually hard to imagine backscatter body-scan imaging (sometimes dubbed the “porno-scan”) being seen as erotic by anyone. But these ghostly and surreal images do represent a new frontier in the post-9/11 trade-off between security and privacy. Similarly, it is hard to imagine the brief lift-and-touch groping involved in airport security as a form of sexual molestation—and the conflation of the one with the other seems a grave disservice to those who actually have been molested. But “don’t touch my junk” does evoke familiar male anxieties.

Much of the response to the new airport procedures amounts to a complaint that members of the law-abiding public are being treated like “common criminals.” An insidious imaginary line is drawn here: those deemed criminal ought to be stripped of normal rights and protections; this is for the good of the rest of us. The core working assumption of the punitive state is thus preserved.

Other responses intensify the definition of certain classes of people as being suspect. Asked if he thought he looked like a terrorist, Tyne said no, and joked, “I’m 6-foot-1, white with short brown hair.” All joking aside, much of the buzz around the case has renewed criticism of “political correctness” at airport screening and stirred new calls for racial profiling of the usual suspects: Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners, brown men.

In other words, “Don’t touch my junk; touch his.”