Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And when they came for the yuppies, I said nothing, for I wasn't... oh, wait.

I'm seeing and hearing a rash of complaints about elevated airport security measures.  And I'll admit these sound pretty bad.  Probably the most detailed complaint I've heard comes from this blog post.  I fully agree with the author that sexually molestation at the hands of a government employee should not be a precondition for flying.

But can we not get carried away with this?  Too many people seem to be following the lead of the first commenter, who praises the author's resistance to TSA by saying, with all apparent sincerity,
Rosa Parks would be proud.
Airport security theater does deserve some pushback, and I think it would be great if passengers simply refused to comply with gross violations of their privacy that do nothing to make air travel safer.  I doubt too many people will resist, though, since not flying is usually not a realistic option for people who have places to be and have already packed and schlepped everything to the airport.  TSA has us, literally and figuratively, by the balls.

That said, this is not the great civil rights battle of our time.  Passengers are not being hauled out of their homes or tortured or placed in prison without access to legal counsel -- things that actually have happened to American citizens in recent years in the name of security.  Nor are people being turned away from the polls or told they can't unionize or being beaten by police officers -- also things that have happened to real live Americans in recent years.  What's going on in the airports is simply a form of government humiliation that has hit the professional class.

Updates: This post seems to have generated quite a few links and comments, so I thought I'd elaborate a bit.  I am certainly not defending enhanced TSA screenings -- I just don't think they are nearly as egregious as many other things our government has done in the name of security in recent years.  Yet the level of public outrage seems to be disproportionate to the egregiousness of the government action.  Here's a scatterplot featuring data that I entirely fabricated:
Why the outsized concern over TSA's activities?  Because those activities disproportionately hit a wealthier and whiter population, i.e.: people with an outsized voice in American politics and journalism.  That doesn't mean that air travelers are all yuppies, but those who are in the airport on any given day not near a major holiday tend to be of the professional class.

Adam Serwer makes this point nicely:
The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We've simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.
But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."
This story will likely get even more interesting next week as a broader demographic group flies for Thanksgiving.


marc said...

Totally. But: airports are also bottlenecks, and while it's pretty hard to figure out how to meaningfully affect the existence of a secret prison in Poland, it is possible to interact directly with Bush-era excess in an airport, and make one's disgust with the whole trend clear there. The privacy stuff is one thing, and not such a big deal personally. But I have myself gotten pulled out of a line in an airport and subjected to interrogation for quite a while, by soldiers, in America, and it's goddamn terrifying, police-state stuff. I've also watched, during a transfer in Amsterdam to a NY-bound-flight, that happened to coincide with a flight from Ethiopia, every Ethiopian male pulled out of the line for questioning by the Dutch because "American authorities are asking us to enforce some special rules." I got that line when asking what was going on, and being told to shut the fuck up and get back in line. Half of them or so missed the connection; guy sitting next to me says "I'm from Michigan, what the hell?" So, Rosa Parks, no. But, airports may be our version of a southern municipal bus system.

Robert said...

I agree with the post, and it nails what I've been feeling in reading some of the news stories on this.

And, while I'm certainly down with privacy concerns, part of what strikes me about this story is how it reflects the larger condition about how the "war on terror" is being fought. That is, from the beginning Pres. Bush made clear that he would ask for zero sacrifice from the public at large, even to the point of not requiring the public to pay for the actual wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of preventing future acts of terror. And it's shame on him and the government at large for creating this condition where a few, namely soldiers and their families, are required to take on the entire burden for the rest of us. But, then it galls me even more when people go ballistic over the one area where some tangible cost is being paid by the public at large.

silentbeep said...

Getting carried away? It may not be that upsetting to you, but if you are trans, have a child, or are a child, or a rape survivor it can be really damn traumatizing.

You don't have to a part of the "professional class" to be grossly humiliated by this procedure, just someone that wants to visit family over the holidays.

"That said, this is not the great civil rights battle of our time"

Who said it was? Besides that "first commenter" who else? And what is the right level of rage that you think is appropriate against being groped without one's permission?

First Amendment Ben said...

What the TSA is doing is unacceptable in my opinion, but I do think that the poster has a very good point.

My understanding is that America has detained our own citizens without due process in the past decade. We have tortured children. They are all bad... but I would rather be groped than tortured or held without trial.

Anonymous said...

1 oz tube of chocolate, caramel or fudge frosting - from the supermarket - makes the enhanced pat-down (aka checking your genitals and plumber's crack for missing coins) a really good time.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, golly, gee, thanks for enlightening me. I guess I'll just forget the whole thing.

This is how it works. Did you think the American founding fathers were a bunch of downtrodden peasant farmers? Hell no! They were landed professionals who made a decision to plunge the country into war because they believed they were entitled to something better.

Yes "entitled". I believe their exact words were that "they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."

You're right though. This is not teh civil rights battle of our time. That battle was 9 years ago and we LOST. That was when we let the government enact the patriot act out of fear.

In Feb of 2002, I stood on the steps of the MN capital after a demonstration. An old woman grabbed my arm and in doing so exposed the tattoo she received from the Nazis. I looked into her terrified eyes as she said urgently "It's happening again! It's happening HERE!"

Last weekend Nazis marched in Arizona while the police maced and attacked the counter protesters.

If this is what it takes to make Americans remember that they have rights fine. Better late than never.

Anonymous said...

"Passengers are not being hauled out of their homes or tortured or placed in prison without access to legal counsel -- things that actually have happened to American citizens in recent years in the name of security."

Exactly. And as the TSA has learned, it's going to be hard for the government to get that far. It's the right thing to do to nip this crap in the bud.

Anonymous said...

You know why the Patriot Act was so easy to pass, Aleric. I think (and emphasize I) it's because terrorism finally hit rich people. When bin Laden was blowing up the USS Cole, that was bad. When he was destroying embassies in Kenya and US Foreign Service members were dead, that was bad. But, DAMMIT, when you kill Cantor Fitzgerald bond traders, well-known to every elite pundit, lobbyist, and politician up and down the East Coast, well something has to be done to protect people (you know, the important ones!).

Now, that's a gross over-simplification of America's reaction to 9/11, but I believe that was part of "dear Feds, protect me from every danger."

Anonymous said...

"What's going on in the airports is simply a form of government humiliation that has hit the professional class. "

That's exactly the point. This kind of humiliation has been going on for the lower classes for years. Now it's affecting people with access to the media, and it's finally getting some response from them. Good. Let's see if our progress towards a security state gets slowed. I know it won't be stopped.

marc said...

Meanwhile, have you SEEN what the airlines are charging for one of those 1/8th-size cans of Pringles?

Rob o'the world said...

My issue is that the enhanced procedures are under the guise of "enhanced" safety. Americans are being lulled into thinking that what TSA decides to do is, in fact, keeping passengers safe. Where is the data on what they have caught at the security checkpoint?

I can't help but feeling that we're being trained to submit to more and more intrusive searches as means to build confidence in the government's ability to keep us "safe."

Clearly, we need to invest more dollars into researching transporters and developing effective pattern buffers so we can rematerialize on the surface.

Seth Masket said...

Marc, don't get me started.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's all about social class. It's more that the TSA molestation is something that everyone can relate to. Getting hauled off to Guantanamo is not.

I agree that equating the current outrage to the Civil Rights Movement is ridiculous hyperbole, but welcome to the Internet.

Anonymous said...

You're right... we should wait until the TSA realizes they can get away with pre-boarding rectal searches before we wake up and do something. Yes, please, let's sit back and let things escalate until then.

Anonymous said...

Yeah...other than the comment you posted, I haven't seen anyone compare this mini-revolt to the civil rights movement. Your basic point that there are things that have been going on for years far more worthy of outrage is certainly true, I think, but at the same time it's like you're downplaying what's going on in aviation security. Logically, the next step for the TSA is random body cavity searches. Where else do they go from groping? Something has to be done now, and all of the petty, stupid restrictions and security theater leading up to this generated quite a bit of outrage as well. But the average non-servile traveler has reached the breaking point, and it's refreshing at least to see people finally stand up for their rights and basic dignity. I'm not optimistic enough to believe that this is the crack that will bring the whole dam crashing down, but christ at least it's something.

Anonymous said...

Seth-I think the amount of comments on this post in comparison with your other posts makes your point quite nicely.

Don't feel too bad though; I come here for your party-blogging. Most of the time.

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