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.”

1 comment:

  1. The bloke who runs WeWontFly has a nice term for the current mode:
    "security theater."