There’s been a lot of uproar about TSA screenings over the Internet in the past week or so. Apparently at the direction of Homeland Security in the United States, those passengers who opt out of going through the human microwaver…um I mean the backscatter x-ray screening machine have the lovely option of an enhanced pat down by friendly TSA staff. This enhancement includes breast squeezing for the ladies and genital groping for everyone. Even children have the chance to be officially fondled by these dedicated personnel.
Here’s a few of the stories as well as some proposed remedies:
From the Atlantic magazine-For the First Time, the TSA Meets Resistance with a follow up ‘Are Any Parts of Your Body Sore?’ Asks the Man From TSA
Homeland Security Wants to See You Naked from the ACLU’s blog-if you have had a problem at the airport there are links there to report it. The ACLU is considering taking some action on this matter.
And of course YouTube comes to the rescue with assorted parodies and video commentary such as
Alternative Universe “TSA Training Film” [adult content-NSFW for some]
So I want to look at the question of this “meaningless security theater” that is taking place and try to pull some of the curtain back as to why it is a theatrical exercise rather than an effective means of ensuring security. And some possibilities as to what underlies the current scenario. So I’ll just go at it from a bunch of different angles and maybe something of use will come of such an exercise.
Who Owns Privacy?
One thing I’m wondering is if celebrities and other prominent people are going through the same thing as everyone else. Are Britney Spears, Kanye West, Leonardo DiCaprio, Pamela Anderson, Bill Gates, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Michelle Obama or any others also being subjected to the same sort of scrutiny with the same sort of enthusiasm as anonymous “hot chicks” are? Now if the purpose of this “meaningless security theater”, so dubbed in the Atlantic article, is to avoid the appearance of profiling or any other sort of discriminatory activity certainly that would include the well known as “random” targets for scrutiny. But then again they have private planes or at least VIP entrances to the 1st class areas so not only do they not go through the pat down or the microwave they also don’t go through regular security either.
And how do I know that? I happen to be acquainted with someone who manages a large private hangar at an international airport in a major city. People like George Bush have gone through that hangar. There are thousands of such hangars, as well as private airports, not only in North America but all over the world. It is like an exclusive and separate air traffic system. (Just like the military has) The security involved there is all about the safety and privacy of the passenger. It is to insure that the VIP experience is not “tainted” by such proletarian practices as personal invasions of privacy or public sexual assault. The entourages, crews and employees of such lofty individuals are also exempt from most (but not all) of the security practices at “public” airport terminals. The latter depends upon your “degree of separation” from the powerful individual in question. If they really “need” you, then you get the perk of being unmolested.
Here’s another example of the separate systems at work. It is interesting that so many celebrities get “caught” by the paparazzi or TMZ at such places as LAX, JFK or other airports when they definitely have an option to leave the premises via other exits. No one need even know they were there. I suppose some do this “normal” thing just to feel a little more “normal” in the hyped up culture in which they work, but it seems many may have other motives. By example, do you ever see Meryl Streep, Cameron Diaz (tho she used to get caught, but not any more), Jim Carrey, Steven Spielberg, or some of the other really big names get “caught” at the airport. I’ve never or very rarely seen it. They work with security to bypass all that either by going to private hangars and airports or by using alternative VIP exits.
The closer you are to power and popularity the less likely it is that you will experience any of the above mentioned incidents if you travel by air. So if you can scam a ride aboard a celebrity’s private jet, a government aircraft, any military airborne vehicle or a corporate helicopter you are home free.
And Who Else is Exempt?
A pilot wrote this interesting essay recently TERMINAL MADNESS: An Essay On Security in which he explains the many groups of people who are exempt from rigorous security screening yet have open access to aircraft and airport systems. While he didn’t list them all some of these include aircraft maintenance personnel, caterers, shop keepers, luggage handlers, grounds keepers, fire and police, janitorial staff, restaurant staff, electricians and other building maintenance personnel, construction crews and so on.
Some of the many reasons he gives for decrying the current security protocols include:
-weapons checks which target conventional types of weapons and disregard the types of specific people who might be coming up with unconventional types of weapons
-obsession with methods that have worked in the past ie 9-11 which, now that they’ve been exposed are likely to be abandoned for different scenarios.
Both of these are symptomatic of typical government types of responses to situations. Rather than thinking outside the box the policy makers sit inside the box and wait for someone, usually with malice in mind, to throw an new idea into the box.
The author has further points to make but one of the most salient is that the responsibility for security doesn’t start at the airport but long before that with other government agencies who should be obtaining far more and credible intelligence about security situations. I mean if they (Bush, Blair, NATO, their respective governments and security establishments etc) couldn’t even tell if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction how can it be expected for some minimum wage security guard to figure out if tweezers are a viable weapon or not. When the latter scenario becomes your front line defense there is no security to be had. It’s all façade.
Handsy or What?
Most people don’t do the kinds of work that involves touching other people as a condition of employment. There are however those who do and that category might include nurses, doctors, dancers and dance instructors, massage practitioners, yoga instructors, WWF wrestlers, prison guards, undertakers, prostitutes, hairdressers and cosmetologists, police, lap dancers, professional pairs skaters, make up artists, chiropractors, physio-therapists, x-ray technicians, dentists, actors, dental assistants, acrobats, ambulance personnel, extreme fighters, bouncers, security people, certain athletes like synchronized swimmers and football players, fundamentalist Christian preachers who slap people on the head and scream “You’re healed!” and probably a few others.
There are certain protocols in place for most of these occupations. Not that everyone follows protocols of course.
I’ve been subject to an enhanced pat down many years ago in Taiwan. At the time though they had just lifted martial law so most of the previous security features were in place, including jeeps full of soldiers with serious armaments driving about the streets. The security screening I went through was done by a woman in a curtained area. It was thorough alright but utterly impersonal and efficient. I felt like I could have been a piece of furniture being checked over for coins before being vacuumed. And I appreciated that attitude and understood the very serious security situation that the country was in, still “technically” being at war with mainland China.
Similar situations have occurred in other places too. While leaving India, Oman and Turkey there are often pat downs. Since all of these countries have had more than their share of security situations in addition to their locations it’s understandable. And most of the protocols have been in place from the beginning of the commercial air travel booms. One thing to note though is that any pat down has been in a curtained area and by a woman. I think that is the norm in Asia and the Middle East. Come to think of it I’ve been patted down in Dubai too. It’s still something of a feeling of intrusion but done as respectfully as possible.
And anyone who’s gone on a prison visit gets the same treatment. In many cases, though certainly not all, even inmates, when being checked for contraband, we’re talking cavity search, are dealt with in a professional and distant manner. In the prison scenario that is crucial because the inmate and the guard have to face each other on a daily basis and to get into making the thing personal ultimately leads to disruptions at the institution. Everybody knows their roles and their limits.
In the public scenario however the average passenger doesn’t generally know their role. Routine travellers might have a clue about it, as pilots have illustrated with their union-wide protest of practices. But the average holiday traveler barely knows enough to pack their luggage properly (overweight, quarts of pickles in their carry-ons, butane cans for the lighters they forgot to fill at home, etc.) never mind what goes on at a security checkpoint (jacket off, laptop out, shoes in the tray, coins out of the pockets, boarding pass in hand, wait at the red line, one at a time, etc.)
The average passenger, that is the average citizen, also often doesn’t generally know their rights as well as their role. Without such knowledge people will capitulate to nearly anything provided there is some kind of rationale, no matter how bogus, put forward to justify the treatment.
Another viewpoint on this is the perspective of the security person themselves. Many years ago I had a part-time security job. Sometimes it involved having to pat people down for contraband, mostly looking for booze people were trying to smuggle into concerts. We would confiscate it and throw it out. (No we did not keep it and party after work because who knows what was really in it?)It wasn’t the most pleasant part of the job but it wasn’t horrible either. The thing that goes through your head in those instances is “Avoid the soft lumpy parts and feel for solid objects” and the entire person’s body constituted “soft lumpy parts”. We didn’t do the crotch grab or the boob fondle. But I can see in that scenario those just being delegated to “soft lumpy parts” and moving on. I know I could view it that way without much problem. It becomes very mechanical after a while.
Unfortunately there seems to be a problem for some security staff in building up and maintaining this kind of professional distance. As well as using whatever discretion is available to them instead of blindly following the rules or what they believe the rules to be. In so many of the reported instances either the individuals or their supervisors were “new” , “not following protocol”, “adjusting to the new system” and so on. Somebody ought to be doing some actual thinking on the front line so that things don’t get so out of hand.
But that is the downside of playing a role. And when the play is as badly written as what is being presented by Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration departments it is no wonder that the actual actors dumbly mouth the rules at everyone and when someone refuses to follow along the over-reaction is almost hysterical. Lawsuit? Prison time? Really? Even for *NOT* getting on the plane.
It is utterly hysterical and without reason. Safety and security are not being served by terrorizing the domestic population and that is what it is coming down to.
Insularity has long been a hallmark of American thinking. Or at least of those who have come to be in charge of the decision-making processes. (Commie paranoia, immigrant paranoia, Islamophobia, etc.-interesting how the “foreign,” that is the global context, is the enemy usually under the guise of protecting “American interests”. As an aside also interesting how this is very similar to the thinking involved with China’s foreign and domestic policy) Perhaps that is a hallmark of empires as well as the reason for their downfalls. Insularity may once have been confidence but when confidence shakes insecurity becomes paramount. Insularity and ignorance of context and a sense of global insecurity, and I don’t mean from terrorism, I do mean the fear of being usurped as top dog, are a couple of the reasons so much of America’s foreign policy has engendered so much bitterness around the world. Without taking context into account policies are put forward, based on this insular, closed thinking and practices are engendered from that perspective and inflicted upon populations. For the longest time it was foreign populations who endured it, but now it’s becoming a domestic situation as well.
The passenger paranoia is based on unknowns, just like the paranoias of the past.
“We don’t know who these people are!”
Therefore rather than gather information and intelligence and develop a strategy that would bring further information, and cooperation to the fore, the force of paranoia and all of it’s malignant manifestations continues to arise.
I’m not talking about some ridiculous conspiracy theory but a mindset that is apparently incapable of seeing beyond the introspective box until a grenade is lobbed into that box. And even so the response is not to venture out of the box to discover actual causes to the disastrous effects but reinforce the box while the contents simmer in grandiose paranoid delusions of what is “out there”.
How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary politics, fear mongering, and a disconcerting willingness of the American public to accept almost anything, no matter how illogical, inconvenient or unreasonable, in the name of security. Conned and frightened, our country demands not actual security, but security spectacle.
[Thanks to Bodhipaksa for the Facebook exchange that prompted this post]
Iggy Pop in the 70s-The Passenger [with a few swears and a rather odd musical arrangement]
[so you can sing along as you go through TSA screening]
I am the passenger and I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, the bright and hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight
I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky
Over the city’s ripped backsides
And everything looks good tonight
Singing la la la la la.. lala la la, la la la la.. lala la la etc
Get into the car
We’ll be the passenger
We’ll ride through the city tonight
We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides
We’ll see the bright and hollow sky
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright
Stars made for us tonight
Oh, the passenger
How, how he rides
Oh, the passenger
He rides and he rides
He looks through his window
What does he see?
He sees the sign and hollow sky
He sees the stars come out tonight
He sees the city’s ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
‘Cause it just belongs to you and me
So let’s take a ride and see what’s mine
Singing la la la la.. lala la la [x3]
Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He sees things from under glass
He looks through his window side
He sees the things that he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He sees the city sleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride
Oh, oh, Singing la la la la lalalala