I believe in American exceptionalism. That means I believe that our history and values and sacrifices and our learned-from wrongs combine to make something unique and wonderful and worth protecting and celebrating. That exceptionalism is not a function of geography or an accident of birth. It's a result of fidelity — of adherence to shared values that make us mighty. I may disagree with others about what it means when it comes to policy and practice, but I believe firmly that it is true.
Americans can be murdered by terrorists, but shared values cannot be destroyed by guns and bombs and planes. Yet our adversaries in the "War on Terror" can most certainly win. They can win by frightening us into infidelity to our values, into betraying our best selves. Some would argue that they are already winning by that measure.
I can see what they mean. When we allow ourselves to be irrationally frightened into letting upjumped smirking thugs grope us, gape at our nads, and tell us we have to take it, we're losing. We're being unfaithful to what makes us great.
I'm talking, of course, about the Transportation Security Agency.
We've blogged a fair amount about the TSA here, and not in a flattering way. We've talked about how the TSA can't distinguish between a thing and a picture of a thing, thinks that it has authority to investigate illicit cash (and believes that telling them it's none of their business represents suspicious behavior), relies on junk science to "detect" danger, feels entitled to your unquestioning obedience (and tries to earn it not with competence but with, in effect, a also-ran muppet), and is vigilant against pressing dangers like Decepticons. Of course, if you recruit on pizza boxes, you're not going to wind up with Elliot Ness. You're going to get people who use the body scanners to make fun of people's genitals, pretend to find cocaine in passengers' luggage as a prank, steal from carry-ons, and generally act like badged choads. Oh, and sex offenders. Don't forget the sex offenders. A security checkpoint is Walt Disney World for them.
As with so many other Security State measures added since 9/11, in the face of intrusive Security Theater the public has mostly confined its dissent to grumbling about inconvenience and delay. We don't focus enough on those measures being revoltingly intrusive. That's because we're easy to scare and fundamentally innumerate. As Wil Wilkerson points out, we're only cowed into being abused because we were told there would be no math:
I think this is one of those subjects that demands we step back, take a deep breath, and consider with a clear mind just how phenomenally idiotic the government's policy of increasingly invasive degradation really is. Law-abiding travelers, who pose approximately zero risk of terrorism, and offer no ground for reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, must run this gauntlet of abasement because airplanes were once made the instrument of mass death. The odds of being a victim of terrorism on a flight are approximately 1 in 10,408,947—rather less than the 1 in 500,000 odds of getting killed by lightning.
Would we submit to standing in line and having government workers rifle through our pockets and ask us annoying questions before being allowed to go outside on a stormy day, to reduce the chance of being hit by lightening? No. But we've submitted to far worse from the TSA because we've allowed the government to scare the bejeesus out of us about bin Laden being in every overhead bin, and convinced ourselves that it actually makes good sense to spend an hour of our trip standing in line and being probed by a guy in a polyester shirt, but no sense to spend five more minutes on our trip by driving the speed limit on the way to the airport, even though driving is many orders of magnitude more likely to kill us. We've allowed ourselves to be scared moronic and compliant. Like cows.
Now, however, the TSA might possibly have found a way to startle the herd into genuine anger and defiance. The TSA has rolled out its program requiring you to submit to either a body-revealing scan or a gropefest patdown. Between revealing full-body scanners and the alternative "enhanced pat-downs," Americans are as close as they have been since 9/11 to calling bullshit on the ever-increasing Security Theater. Is the TSA managing that anger well? Of course not. Some of them smirk that we like it. Still others are clearly furious that the cows are no longer, well, cowed. There are increasing reports that the enhanced pat downs are being threatened, and used, in an angry and retaliatory fashion by government employees who are upset that we don't want our practically naked bodies displayed on scanners. Consider this story from a groped rape survivor:
I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling Opt out- we have an opt here. Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down. He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen. I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”
Since Celeste didn’t agree to go through the scanner, the enhanced pat down began. “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch. He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm. Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying to the Goddess for strength. He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts. That wasn’t the worst part. He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me. That’s when I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped. There’s no way I can fly again. I can’t do it.”
Of course TSA agents are angry when you don't herd obligingly through the scanner. They feel entitled to it, as a matter of right, based on what the modern Security State envisions that Americans should be. When the TSA expressed angst that "unquestioning compliance has diminished", it was tipping its hand. The purpose of Security Theater is not only to prevent actual security threats. The purpose of Security Theater is to convince us that the government can do something and is doing something, and most importantly to make us accept "unquestioning compliance" with government as an American value. The purpose of Security Theater is to normalize submission. But "unquestioning compliance" is not an American value. Quite the contrary. In a nation in which we owe fidelity to shared values, accepting unquestioning compliance with government is like sneaking out on the wife and kids and nailing the smeared-lipstick cosmo-addled skank at the sleazy bar in the next town. And don't come crying back to your wife Liberty and your kids Personal Responsibility and deal little Individuality when you pick up a nasty case of authoritarianism oozing from your — ok, I'm going to have to pull this literary device over and walk.
The proponents of the Security State — and the people who make their living from it — think just shut up and obey. Take the blogger Mom vs. the World, a former TSA agent. Even though she questions the value of the scanners, and even though she thinks the enhanced pat-downs are bullshit, she remains captured by the TSA mindset. Her view of the proper relationship between the state and the citizen is typified by her post Shut Up And Get In The Scanner. Aside from asserting, basically, that what should really embarrass us is not being scanned or groped, but the fact that we're a pack of quarreling, vibrator-carrying, trash-dressing, child-abusing trailer trash, she offers this:
Flying is a privilege not a right. As such, it can be and is regulated. Requirements can and are set up to ensure that everyone who flies is safe. If you don’t like it, then don’t fly. You may not be as concerned as the next guy about the safety or you may be more concerned. Point is the job of TSA is to ensure the entire traveling public is safe not just you. TSA officers don’t care what you as an individual want, they can’t, it just isn’t possible. You may be ok with lax security but what about the next passenger who wants thorough security?
Your right to privacy isn’t being violated at all. You always have the option to drive a car, take a train, grab the bus or start rowing a boat. You do not have to fly, you just want to fly. The minute you decide you want to fly then you have to accept that security is involved and you are going to have consent and submit to it period the end.
. . . .
Now if you want to fly, suck it up and accept that you have to submit to the security procedures. Yes you think they are stupid or unnecessary but TSA officers and TSA don’t care what you think. They try to make it all warm and fuzzy but they can’t because it is security not a trip to Disney World. Shut up and get in the scanner or don’t fly.
Well, "Mom", if flying is a "privilege, not a right," it's because over the last century we have gradually accepted the proposition that anything the government tells us it can regulate, it can regulate. Unlike "Mom", Justice Stewart knows a right when he sees it: "The constitutional right to travel from one State to another . . . occupies a position fundamental to the concept of our Federal Union. It is a right that has been firmly established and repeatedly recognized." Of course, rights are subject to limitations. Should the right to travel be limited by forced subservience to groping for purposes of Security Theater?
Now, I'm not saying that Mom is herself a perverted thug, like the people she's saying we should just obey. I'm saying that she's a sneering, entitled apologist for perverted thugs — and for the canine, un-American value of slobbery submission to the state. Even though she concedes that the groping is retaliatory bullshit, and even though she has no basis to assert that Security Theater actually increases real security, she's deeply resentful that people are not putting up with it. Her righteous anger — like the anger of of the TSA thugs groping just a little bit harder to punish you for saying no to the body scanner — is the result we should expect from the small-time thugs whose identity is tied up in their petty authority.
Throughout my career — both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney — I've observed a consistent inverse relationship: the more petty a government officer's authority, the more that officer will feel a need to swagger and demand that you RESPECT HIS AUTHORITAH. Your average FBI agent might search your house based on a crappy perjured warrant, invade your attorney-client emails, and flush your life down the toilet by lying on the stand at your mail fraud trial. But he doesn't feel a need to vogue and posture to prove anything in the process. He's the FBI. But God above help you when you run into the guy with a badge from some obscure and puny government agency with a narrow fiefdom. He and his Napoleon syndrome have got something to prove. And he's terrified that you'll not take him very, very seriously. When I call FBI agents on behalf of my clients, they're cool but professional and nonchalant. When I call a small agency — say, state Fish & Game, or one of the minor agency Inspector Generals — they're hostile, belligerent, and so comically suspicious that you'd think I was asking for their permission to let my client smuggle heroin into the country in the anuses of handicapped Christian missionary orphans. They are infuriated, OUTRAGED, when a client asserts rights, when a client fails to genuflect and display unquestioning obedience. They are, in short, the TSA.
The media is trying out the story-of-the-week that the populace is revolting against the TSA, and against Security Theater. It might even be a little bit true.
It's about godammed time.
Another addition: "Heads up, got a cutie for you."
Another: Parody. But only barely.
“We need to do a better job of setting the mood,” Napolitano continued. ”At airport security areas we are going to start dimming the lights a bit. We will also be playing Kenny G music softly. While escorting passengers to the renamed “Happy Area”, TSA security will be required to talk a little bit about themselves. I think it will really be an enjoyable experience.”
And still more: Really, who am I to criticize the brave men and women of the TSA, who are all that stands between us and the menacing terrorist snowglobes?
More: The hashtag #TSASlogans on Twitter is made of awesome.
More, again: A dissenting view.
More, the revenge: and this is why we seek bromance with Iowahawk.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- A Response To Marc: Institutions, Agendas, and the "Culture War" - January 13th, 2016
- Lawyering Is About Service, Not Self-Actualization - January 11th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: Was FAU Prof. James Tracy Fired in Violation of His First Amendment Rights? - January 7th, 2016
- Defy, Defy, Defy. - January 7th, 2016
- President Obama And The Rhetoric Of Rights - January 5th, 2016