I've been thinking along the same lines as Jos at Feministing:
Here's the thing: airport security has been problematic for a long time. Since 9/11 security checkpoints have become a major site for racial and religious profiling, something that is still very much going on today with rules that target Muslims. Transgender and gender non-conforming folks became a target when the Secure Flight program began requiring travelers to match the gender on their IDs. There were of course social justice responses, but nothing on the scale of the backlash we are hearing now. And the new security procedures only increase the danger for and potential targeting of trans folks.
All of this makes me wonder: what would have happened if we had heard an outcry like the one we are hearing now when the TSA was mostly a problem for trans folks and those targeted by racial profiling? What if everyone was this upset by threats to the rights of minority groups?
I largely agree, although getting people upset about other people's rights being violated is fairly tough, especially in the US in 2010 when people are constantly bombarded with messages telling them to be as self-centered as possible. I've been in the US for a week now and I haven't watched TV or listened to the radio outside of public spaces, but I've heard the phrase "Because you deserve [insert product]" at least a dozen times and wondered how that person in the ad can know that those listening actually "deserve" or "have earned" anything.
People who consume enough corporate media to get that message several dozen times a day in all its forms, added to the very American "Life sucks, but my life sucks particularly" mentality and the very human ability to assume that one can know the entire universe through their own experiences. It's not hard to imagine why they don't get worked up for other people's problems.
But that's not what's surprising to me about this backlash against airport security.
I've been through American airport security only once this year at JFK, and I had a little of the culture re-shock that comes with forgetting the little things that are done differently in America, the world's most exceptional country.
One of those things is the shoe ceremony at the airport. I had forgotten about that since European airports only make people with huge shoes with lots of metal on them take them off, and it's not like European airports are lax when it comes to security. They're closer to actual terror threats, but, well, taking off your shoes does nothing to keep anyone safe so why force people to do it?
So when I was reminded that people take off their shoes in the US, and my first instinct was to just try to go through the scanner with my shoes on since they had no metal. And then I saw that everyone was taking off their shoes, without fuss, without even being asked. My Don't you all know there's no reason for this other than to give you a false sense of security? was tempered with Do you think you're that fucking special? Do you think you can go to a country you don't live in and not respect their customs?
So I took off my shoes, but it was more than a hassle. In my life, which has been lived (save a few short trips) entirely in the Western world, the only times I take off my shoes are in people's homes, in changing rooms, and in mosques. In other words, in places of privacy where its practical or in public spaces to show respect for a god. There's no privacy at the security line at the airport, so it becomes clear that the shoe ceremony falls into the latter category.
It makes a kind of sense since every culture has their ceremonies for safety in the face of fear, from prayers to offerings for deities, from simple charms to complex rituals. Having everyone take off their shoes before government agents to show their respect and compliance is benign compared to, say, human sacrifices. And, no, we contemporary Americans aren't so fucking special that we've grown past the very human need to do something to be safer, even if that something is nothing but theater.
But I still remember a few short years ago people were complaining about the shoes (and the belts and the watches and the coats...) coming off at airport security. Cartoonists were drawing pictures of stripteases at the airport, activists were calling for boycotts, editorials about privacy were run in most newspapers. The right and the Bush administration pushed back: would you rather take off your shoes or die? And then everything just sort of fizzled out and people complied.
The same thing is happening now. This editorial in the Jackson Citizen-Patriot is a representative example:
Now, a reality check: Airport screeners are not yahoos. There is nothing to suggest they are uploading videos from security cameras to YouTube (for one, it would be illegal). Most travelers are not subject to pat-downs, and male screeners frisk men and female screeners frisk women. Travelers, according to TSA guidelines, can request a witness to pat-downs.
This is an intrusive system, but we have long ago left behind the days of hassle-free air travel. We have learned to arrive for flights sooner and grown accustomed to longer lines at the security gate. We dump out our bottled water and take off our shoes. We're coping with it.
For good reason, too: We appreciate that the terrorist threat is real. To protect the lives of everyone, we have to take precautions that we simply don't like. If would-be bombers are willing to take extraordinary actions, we have to do what we can -- within reason -- to stop them.
The phrase "within reason" matters here. Air travel shouldn't be about sacrificing our nation's notions of liberty, or basic decency. That has not happened here. The federal airport screeners have made flying a little more inconvenient and much safer. It's a hassle worth accepting.
The editorial is unsigned, written by the paid staff of a mainstream newspaper, yet they don't seem to be doing much fact-checking or even fact-presenting. Considering that the entire point of the column is to say that security is more important than privacy, it's shocking as a writer to see that the author felt no need to prove that these security measures actually make people safer. If it were about any other topic, the editors would have sent this column back for a rewrite; since it's about terrorism, the editors write it this poorly themselves.
Time magazine is more direct, running this headline:
I know Time is a glorified children's magazine, but you'd think that they'd at least try to provide some sort of proof of the choice presented in that title. But they don't. That's not necessary because logic and reason aren't necessary. Compliance and respect are.
And Psychology Today has a column up about how people who worry about privacy are the real fear-mongerers, referring to privacy advocates as the "Scream-o-Sphere" while people who wet their beds about the incredibly low chances of dying in a terror attack are reasonable and sane (the writer even says that the risk of cancer from full body scans is infinitesimally small, which is true, but failed to note that the chance of dying in a terror attack on an airplane is even smaller). It's creepy that psychologists are getting involved and marginalizing people who worry about their privacy in the face of these security measures, but that's America in 2010.
So, yes, I think Americans will come around to accept these measures just fine. Give us a couple months and we'll happily go along with the groping and the scans, just as we did with the random searches, the long lines to get through security, the no-fly lists, the shoe ceremony, the liquid ban that was suspiciously implemented around the same time airlines started charging for drinks, and the normal pat-downs. People don't mind being treated like criminals already; this one step isn't going to be the last straw.
But I don't really see an end to this. People are being asked to accept these measures based on no evidence that they actually reduce the risk of a terror attack, but on the possibility that a terrorist might use a certain method to sneak an object onto a plane.
What if a terrorist hide a plastic explosive in their anus? While there may be no evidence that they will do that, can you prove that they won't?
What if a terrorist made clothing out of plastic explosives? While we can't see how they'd do that, can you prove that they'll never figure out how to do it?
What if a terrorist implants a plastic explosive into their own body in the shape of a pacemaker? It might be a lot of work, but can you prove that they won't go to those lengths?
And when we're passing through security naked, getting body cavity searches, and having pacemakers jolted to prove that's what they actually are, there will be another "what if."
That's what's surprising to me and related to what Jos was saying: people don't even care about what they're going through, much less what other people are going through, as long as the word "terrorism" gets thrown around promiscuously. Would we be having debate if the push-back against the shoe ceremony or hassles minorities faced were successful? No. But it wasn't, and it the push-back against the Obama administration's full body scans won't be successful now. It'll take more than a little groping and a few naked pics to get people upset enough to change things.
For myself, I'm keeping my old rule of using ground transport as much as possible when in the US. Greyhound and Amtrak are my friends.