More in confusion than in sorrow

National Opt-Out Day has come and gone. I am saddened I was not in a position to participate in the festivities. The consensus seems to be forming that, as a mechanism for civil disobedience, the protest didn’t work — delays were minimal everywhere, and the TSA triumphantly announced that passengers were happy with the scans and searches (this one is especially precious).

I’m not tremendously surprised: if you knew your actions were going to be carefully scrutinized over the course of one particular day, don’t you think you’d be on good behavior, too? I’m more interested to see what happens next week — Opt-Out Week, or something like that. Granted, this was the single best opportunity to reach folks who don’t fly much… and it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Having said that: Air traffic was apparently very light; virtually every article written about the lack of a fuss on NOOD notes that lines moved quickly and that there were very few delays. You have to wonder whether it was NOOD, the threat of the scans, or the economy that drove most of that. (Also, I note the flying weather was reasonably good through most of the United States yesterday, which probably helped a lot.)

The uprising against the TSA is refreshing: this is the first time in a very long time (you could say since before 9/11, but I think it goes back even further than that) where a segment of the American Public has decided, en masse, that they’ve had enough intrusion into the personal space in the name of safety, security — or law and order, come to that. As with everything else these days, however, there is inevitably push-back against the push-back; the hacks are writing columns that suggest it’s everyone’s patriotic duty to get into the box and be irradiated, and even ordinarily good pundit-type folks (Kevin Drum comes readily to mind here) are arguing that the whole thing is a manufactured controversy that’s designed to hurt Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

I can’t speak for absolutely everyone behind NOOD or, but at least in the places where I hang out (like, say, FlyerTalk), we’ve been complaining about this kind of thing basically forever. A lot of us have been talking about the absurdity of airport security — well, pretty much since 9/11. Bruce Schneier has pointed out, repeatedly, that the major change to prevent future 9/11-style attacks was more or less implemented by 09:57 EDT 11 September 2001. Everything else became theater to make people feel safer. Patrick Smith has similarly been making the argument that the true long-term threat to commercial aviation is, and always has been, explosives. To that end, the Nude-o-Scope is at least sort of understandable: Bozo J. Terrorist decides to smuggle explosives aboard an airplane by hiding them under his clothes, so perhaps we should see what we can do to find that stuff. But in that case, why not close the other holes, too? Why not make sure that everyone going air-side, and having unescorted access to aircraft, be screened to make sure they don’t smuggle something aboard? And what’s the evidence that the Nude-o-Scope actually works, anyway? We have no independent way to know whether the trade off — radiation exposure and strip searches — is worth it. We’re asked to take the TSA at its word: the scanners are safe, the images aren’t saved, you can’t see anything interesting.

Hopefully, I’ll be forgiven if I don’t fully buy into those assurances.

Glenn Greenwald has written a magnificent piece about the pushback to the pushback, using a smear job on John Tyner (Mr. “Touch My Junk And I’ll Have You Arrested”) as the framing device, and managed to hammer home a number of important points. Among them: “[T]herein lies the most odious premise in this smear piece: anyone who doesn’t quietly, meekly and immediately submit to Government orders and invasions — or anyone who stands up to government power and challenges it — is inherently suspect.”

How did this happen? I blame TV. Hold on, I can support this. How many police procedurals — think “Law and Order” — have you seen where the cops do something they’re clearly constitutionally constrained from doing, only to have the fruits of their labor tossed out of court on a “technicality”? The heroes of the show, thwarted! “And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Constitution!” is the message we get. This is propaganda of the highest order; it induces this incredibly naive sense that only the true criminals need to rely on these loopholes to get away with their heinous acts. The applicability of constitutional protections to ordinary, law-abiding folks is lost under these circumstances. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are totally OK with this stuff, how many times I hear “if you have nothing to hide…” as the preamble to a blithe dismissal of one’s rights.

I don’t really care how people came to this conclusion. I don’t care whether they’re being Astroturfed into existence, or whether they’ve had their privilege shaken (by dint of being treated the way visible minorities are all over the place), or whether they just find strangers touching them icky. All are perfectly valid realizations. I care, a bit, about whether protesters want more profiling (it doesn’t work the way they think it does, but that’s an argument for another day). Mostly I’m just glad to see people waking up to the realization that the government doesn’t necessarily know what it’s doing, that it doesn’t always know best, and that it is proper, and even responsible, to question its pronouncements. One might, unreasonably I admit, hope that the new enlightenment spills over into other areas (e.g., Drug War). A guy can dream.