The Tea Party and the TSA

by Russell Arben Fox on November 15, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

Let’s just get the basics out of the way: the new “advanced imaging technology” which the Transportation Security Administration is spreading out at hundreds of airports around the country is a ridiculously invasive, disrespectful, and only dubiously effective way of making certain nobody brings anything remotely suspicious onto an aircraft. For my part, I’m signing up for National Opt-Out Day, at least in principle. No one in my family will be flying anywhere on November 24th, but I will be flying the first week of December–to Hong Kong, no less–and then my whole family will be flying to Hawaii in January. I don’t know what sort of embarrassment and delays and possible harassment my wife and I will choose to subject ourselves to, or tolerate our children being subject to, but when I’m on my own, I’m choosing the pat-down. I would far prefer to share the humiliation of being groped in public by a TSA flunky than pose like a criminal to allow someone in an isolated room (no matter what promises the TSA makes regarding privacy) to view my naked body.

Does this make me a civil libertarian, banging on about individual rights? I suppose, depending on how you define the term and what you understand it to encompass, then yes, in this case I am. But it might be better expressed as feeling offended at the disrespect, the lack of civility and decency, which these measures imply. It treats passengers on airlines as if they were pieces of meat, in essence. What sort of basis for a polity is that, in which those wishing to do something perfectly legal must bodily demonstrate to some other randomly empowered person that they fit some standard of appearance or behavior? This goes way beyond subjecting individuals to scans to make sure they are being truthful when they are asked if they are carrying anything dangerous, or verifying their identify, or randomly selecting people for questions and/or searches; this is treating the body itself as suspect, as a carrier that must be vouchsafed for. Can I come up with counter-factuals that would suggest such an approach is sometimes necessary? Sure: that’s why prisons and police forces occasionally make use rubber-gloved cavity searches. But the indignity involved in such a transaction suggests that the person being so treated has been reduced to less than a citizen, less than fellow member of the community. Is that what the fear of terrorism leads us to–allowing ourselves and our fellow citizens to be so reduced?

I doubt it; what is more likely is that the rhetoric of safety has provided sufficient cover for an ordinary government bureaucracy to treat its business as a mere technical problem, to be solved by continually refining technology and training processes, and of course, by hiring more people and buying more machines. All other concerns fail to register in such an innocently managerial environment. I find myself comparing all this to the enormous–and paranoid–build-up around the White House and other federal buildings and landmarks during the 1990s and early 2000s. Yes, on some level, such berms and barriers and obstacles made these buildings safer…but they also made them uglier, more removed, less accessible. (Not to mention unnecessarily causing traffic headaches up the wazoo, as anyone who remembers how downtown DC physically changed over that decade could tell you.) Is that really a way to show respect to the citizens whose taxes, you know, pay for those buildings? Oh, but of course, that’s a question of aesthetics and community and democracy, and when put up against the individual demanding his or her safety, and a government bureaucracy empowered to act on their behalf, such questions have little purchase.

For someone whose sympathies lie on the left side of the political spectrum, I’m not especially worried about the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican sweep in the last election; despite their numbers, I really don’t think they’re in a position to drive our national government in any particular direction whatsoever, and consequently I expect that the next two years will show Obama engaging in Clinton-style triangulation and the Republican majority in the House putting out brush fires, and little else. It would be nice to see in the TP a genuine drive for the decentralization and redistribution of political power, as opposed to just a simplistic, unprogrammatic demand that the federal government stop exercising so much of it, since in my view, the latter demand only sets the stage for a vacuum regarding health care, or the environment, or labor and business regulations, which private and corporate interests will happily step into. But in regards to the TSA, I’d be delighted to see some “simplistic” refusals–a demand to simply say no to this increasingly ridiculous operation that, however genuine its intentions, has obviously become locked into a way of thinking about airport security that sees the whole matter as a balance between “privacy” and “safety,” with all other values–like dignity–being non-quantifiable and therefore irrelevant. Yes, I think it’d be wonderful to see the Tea Party movement turn on the TSA, perhaps if the organization’s latest actions can be painted as “unconstitutional” somehow. Let’s try to make sure that Glen Beck has to fly on a commercial airline sometime in the near future, and see what he thinks of it all. No doubt he’ll find a way to connect it all to an Obama-inspired communist conspiracy, but at least that might mean TSA could find itself facing a serious Congressional inquiry, for once.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Mark P November 15, 2010 at 6:58 pm

I was just talking about the Tea Party and the TSA yesterday and wondering whether, in this instance, the neo-conservative militaristic fear-mongering or the libertarian/anti-government impetus would win out. Obviously it depends on the person. I’d like to see the TP as, in this instance, an ally against this absurdity, but recall that many, many of these supporters are the same people who during Bush’s presidency were defending the Patriot Act and Homeland Security as necessary for national security.

avatar Steve K. November 15, 2010 at 9:04 pm

What is it with you people and the Tea Party? It seems to make you crazy.

“I would really like to see the Tea Partiers pay attention to my top blah blah blah, otherwise they’re just a bunch of phonies.” The Tea Party is a popular reaction to the bankruptcy and ruin of the nation by the all-consuming, ever-expanding State. That is good stuff, and you are a fool to get in the way of that. What possible purpose does it serve people of a Front Porch persuasion to sharpshoot that? We finally have a popular mobilization against the continued growth of Leviathan and the financial ruination of the people and you’re laying down a litmus test for TSA scanners? Please.

For the record, as someone broadly sympathetic of the Tea Party and its aims, I think the TSA’s new scanners are an outrage, in fact I think the TSA is a joke and an outrage, and I would love to see sanity restored to that bunch. I think the problem is made greatly easier, not to mention cheaper, if the authorities just did the obvious: learn to live with more risk, and pull the Muslims/ people of certain ethnic appearance and names out of line and subject them to greater scrutiny. I think most Tea Partiers of my acquaintance would strongly agree with that, but fat chance of something like that happening in the State dominated by our demented ruling class.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Steve K., Mark P. answers your question, at least for me. I can’t speak for other Front Porchers (I’m probably one of the very few around here who would identify himself as being on the “left”), but for my part, I’m dubious of what the Tea Party will accomplish, because I mainly seeing them saying “no!” to the state, but not presenting anything like a theory (renewed federalism? distributism? anything?) for taking it apart; the likely result, as I see it, is the increased privatization and corporatization of public tasks that ought to be subject to democratic oversight, since the demand for those tasks (“keep us absolutely safe while we fly!”) will remain, but the funding and the leadership to do it in a reasonable way won’t be there. Remember what built the TSA in the first place: a “militaristic fear-mongering,” to quote Mark, whose strongest exponents parallel pretty closely with the demographics of the Tea Party. But hey, they’re in the driver’s seat now; I’m curious to see what they come up with.

Incidentally, I completely agree with you that a little bit of judicious profiling is the obvious answer here. This is how the airports of Israel, with easily 50 times the terrorist threat which American airports face, have been able to maintain a perfect safety record: without excuses or hassles, simply impost higher levels of identification and scrutiny upon those who fit their carefully constructed profiles. I wouldn’t be surprised if the target populations who use Israel’s airports, while no doubt filled with many justified complaints about their treatment by the Israeli government, would express preference for their system over our random, inefficient, and increasingly humiliating approach. At least they know exactly what to expect when they catch a flight from Tel Aviv.

avatar Kevin November 16, 2010 at 12:30 am

At times, things like the TSA (or other invasions of privacy) make me think the terrorists are winning. Certainly, they aren’t quite destroying the society the way they’d like, but they are causing us to drift further and further away from the society we were.

Or maybe we’ve just always been this, and the terrorists are just giving us a chance to show our true colors.

avatar Alfonso Feuerstein November 16, 2010 at 1:51 pm

“the likely result, as I see it, is the increased privatization and corporatization of public tasks that ought to be subject to democratic oversight, since the demand for those tasks (“keep us absolutely safe while we fly!”) will remain, but the funding and the leadership to do it in a reasonable way won’t be there.”

Isn’t that the whole point of privitazation? To get rid of government control (what I assume you mean by democratic oversight, what a charming euphamism) and let efficient, proffit motivated private actors do it right? Funding a leadership won”t be there to do it in a reasonable way? Are you kidding. Let’s take the USPS. The Post Office is broke and getting broker, John Potter is retiring this year to leave the whole mess to the next guy who will probably be asking for massive government assistance to keep this archaic, inefficient beaurocracy around for another decade. Meanwhile, FedEx flourishes and is now attempting to switch to electric delivery trucks. Why? Not because they are green-party statists, not because the EPA mandated it, to make more money. So yeah, I think the goal of the Tea Party is what in Hong Kong they call Positive Non-Interventionism, ie: stop the govenment from actually doing things.

avatar Schofield November 16, 2010 at 8:53 pm

I thought Positive Non-Interventionism triggered the Wall Street bank financial crisis but Positive Intervention by countries like China have encouraged American corporations to send jobs there. I do so wish conservatives would make up their minds whether they like Interventionism or not!

avatar Roger.S November 17, 2010 at 1:55 pm

So dont fly. Why anyone would allow themselves to be herded around, stacked like cordwood and forced to sit in seats too small for a child has always amazed me even before the advent of metal detectors, much less full body scans and pat down searches. Lets face it, flying is not a dignified mode of travel and not just because the government has inserted itself. The airlines would gladly strap a paying passager to a roof rack or sell a seat in the toilet for a buck.
On the one hand some of the recent front porch crowd have touted the wonders of bike riding and dissed people who drive pickups while on the other hand apparantly see no problem filling the skies with jet exhaust in order to vacation in Hawaii. Do you see a problem there?
Finally the problem isnt government vs corporate control. The problem is governement AND corporate control.

avatar Steve K. November 17, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Why fly? Because my employer requires it.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

On the one hand some of the recent front porch crowd have touted the wonders of bike riding and dissed people who drive pickups while on the other hand apparantly see no problem filling the skies with jet exhaust in order to vacation in Hawaii. Do you see a problem there?

Hmm. That sounds like me you’re talking about, though I don’t remember ever writing anything which dissed pickups (I wish I had one, in fact). I am a pretty serious bicycle commuter, and would like to see a lot more people follow that path, and also would like to see the sort of public action that would make such a result possible. And yes, in January, my family and I are flying to Hawaii; my parents are there, and they haven’t seen their grandkids in a long while, and so have made it possible for us to fly out in January. I recognize the environmental cost, but we aren’t saying no to that opportunity (certainly I’m not; my daughters would never forgive me, much less my folks).

Do I see a problem with pointing out the wrongheadedness and indignity of a TSA policy, while continuing to fly on airplaines? At a very distant, theoretical remove, yes, I can see some inconsistency. Here in the trenches of ordinary family-raising and opinion-expressing, I don’t really feel a pressing incoherence, at least not any more than I do when I occasionally shop at Wal-Mart to make our family’s budget stretch, even though I know that in doing so I’m supportive an extractive and exploitative economy. Should I feel especially guilty about this particular incoherence, do you think?

avatar Roger S. November 17, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I have to buy stuff from Walmart all the time as my choices of places to shop have been greatly narrowed by Walmart. Sorry if I made it sound personal. Didnt really intend to. I suppose I would have liked to have seen a broader criticism of air travel and our transportation systems but then I shouldnt blame those who write here for the subjects they choose to address. I think you are quite right to identify the cost of liberty and dignity being traded for the “sense” that we are somehow safe and am grateful that you speak up about it and challenge others to challenge these types of notions.

avatar Mark P November 17, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Where the hell was this anti-government impulse when GWB was in office, hmm? That the TSA (est 2002 by Republicans) has become a target for the same neo-con Republicans who created the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and the TSA itself is somewhere amidst hilarious, crazy, and maddening.

Of course, it makes sense. The former two only effect, you know, Muslims and non-white-middle-class Americans. How many times have I heard that you don’t have to worry about Guantanamo or the Patriot Act if you’re not doing anything wrong?

And if only the TSA would keep their grubby hands off us, clearly-innocent-us, there would be no mainstream conservative outrage. If only we weren’t subjected to the humiliation too, we wouldn’t care a bit. It’s a reaction that this gross inconvenience is occurring to us, not that it exists.

It reminds me of the hilarious Tea Party candidates attacking the Dems for cutting Medicare. WHAT?

The Tea Party is a reaction to Barack Obama and to Democrats fomented by Fox News and Glenn Beck.

avatar ARicketson November 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm

“pull the Muslims/ people of certain ethnic appearance and names out of line and subject them to greater scrutiny.”

If you want them to bear the costs of our security system, then at least they should receive some monetary compensation. If you get searched, you get your flight for free. Sorta like eminent domain. Sound good?

avatar ARicketson November 17, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Turns out that the Tea Party favorites don’t actually want to wield any power over spending decisions.
“Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was asked to be an appropriator and said thanks, but no thanks…”

avatar ARicketson November 17, 2010 at 7:54 pm

“I suppose I would have liked to have seen a broader criticism of air travel and our transportation systems…”It would be nice to see more discussion of how this ever-increasing surveillance at airports interacts with our increasing reliance on air travel (and major state subsidies for air travel)

avatar Alfonsofeuerstein November 20, 2010 at 12:26 am

We don’t.

avatar ARicketson November 20, 2010 at 3:22 am

“higher levels of identification and scrutiny upon those who fit their carefully constructed profiles.”

This seems to require a lot of faith in those technocrats.

Also, should we provide compensation to the people who are searched? After all, if these searches are too troublesome or inconvenient for us Real Americans to be subjected to them, then how do we justify forcing them on others? Is it because We own Them, and therefore can take anything we want from them?

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