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."


  1. Roger - Perhaps you've seen this: - Jay Rosen's collection of op-eds telling us to "grow up" about the TSA actions.

  2. The Pooh-Poohers certainly have gained the upper hand. I should have added "Ends-Against-the-Middle" to the above mix.

    The Ends (left and right) have no doubt fudged the issue with over-the-top and sometimes paranoid claims. But the Middle seems willing to accept a substantial new abridgment to civil liberties, a new erosion of protections against search and seizure.

    Funny thing is, the Ends have a lot of public support. No one likes being treated like a suspect.