scope and grope


Today the well-read red is as obsessed as any rabid tea-bagger about the transportation security administration's invasive new screening procedures for airline passengers. In a weird convergence of left and right, huge numbers of Americans turn out to be averse to having strangers subject them to radiation, take naked pictures of them, or touch their junk. But while the right seems to lay the blame for this chiefly on the current democratic administration, the well-read red suggests that we see this as a continuation of the neoliberalism of the last thirty years, and that we follow the money and consider the larger picture of biopolitical and police control of which the latest measures are only a part.

In case you've missed this story, last month the TSA began requiring passengers and crew to submit to full-body scanners at those airports where they've been installed— a growing number that so far does not include PDX—or else to submit to what they call an enhanced pat-down, which involves TSA agents touching a passengers' breasts and what they call the "crotchal area." Or, perhaps you'll get to do both, if the TSA agents decide there's something suspicious in the scan.

There are a number of objections to these procedures because they violate privacy and endanger health. First, the naked scanners show the passenger, well, naked. And though the TSA has denied that the images would or could be saved, 100 saved images were leaked from a Florida airport. The question of privacy may be particularly acute for some passengers, including people with certain religious beliefs, those who are transgender, or those who are children or traveling with children. Images of naked children are illegal under several countries' laws against child pornography, including the US.

There are also health risks, though the TSA has similarly denied these. There are two types of body scanners currently in use at US airports. One uses "X-rays to scan travelers front and back and create a "naked" image. . . . there are currently 206 of these machines at 38 airports. The other type uses instead a technology called millimeter-wave scanning. There are 167 of these units at 30 airports." But earlier this year, a group of UCSF scientists and physicians, including a biochemist, a cancer expert, and imaging experts, wrote a letter detailing the risks of the X-ray machines, particularly to children, to people over 65, to women with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer, and to people who are immunocompromised because of HIV or cancer treatment, as well as the risk of sperm mutagenesis, and potential dangers to the cornea and thyroid. The Congressional Biomedical Caucus heard testimony from Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on likelihood that the x-ray devices will cause basal cell carcinoma, or skin cancer, since they deliver 20 times the average dose of radiation that is typically quoted by the TSA.

If you opt-out of the machines, you get the enhanced pat-downs, which have traumatized small children whose parent have previously told them that no one can touch them in certain ways, and have re-traumatized sexual assault survivors. The searches have entailed having cancer survivors and other people with disabilities remove prosthetic breasts, prosthetic legs, and in at least one case the search opened up the ostomy bag of a bladder cancer survivor, showering him with urine. Moreover, because the TSA officials don't change their latex gloves between passengers, some are concerned about the transfer of contamination.

The TSA and other officials have tried to sell these procedures as a matter of safety, but to anyone familiar with police procedures, the history of American security theater, or even american cinema, that explanation doesn't fly. When the TSA first began confiscating our nail clippers, I couldn't help wonder why no one seemed to remember that scene in The Godfather Part 3 where Don Lucchesi is stabbed in the neck with his own glasses. And obviously, by stopping just short of a cavity search, the TSA has let us know where to hide those contraband explosives.

It's not even clear that the machines do what they're supposed to do. "A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting "low-density" materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids." And the US General Accounting Office has agreed with this assessment. Mythbusters' Adam Savage reports that he was scanned at an airport but not stopped from boarding his flight, despite the fact that he was at the time carrying two 12-inch razor blades.

Nor are those pat downs likely to be effective in anything other than causing humiliation, pain, and trauma—or maybe in driving more passengers to opt for the scanners, which seems to be at least part of their real motive. Some TSA agents are no doubt themselves embarrassed and unhappy about what their paycheck now requires, but others seem to enjoy the opportunity to exercise power over others. And higher up, the motives are not just the usual security theater, but the even more usual money to be made.

Former DHS head Michael Chertoff is now a lobbyist for Rapiscan, which manufactures one of the machines in use. Other major manufacturers of the devices have retained K Street Lobbyists including former republican congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley of Maryland, former republican Senator Al D'Amato of New York, and a number of former congressional staffers. The CEO of one manufacturer accompanied President Obama on his latest trade junket to India. I bet they weren't irradiated or groped.

Most people in the US seem to be unhappy about the new TSA procedures. A recent Zogby poll showed that 61% of those surveyed oppose Full Body Scans and TSA Pat Downs; and 48% Will Seek Alternatives to Flying. The ACLU reports over 900 complaints have been filed in the last month. The Electronic Privacy and Information Center and other organizations have petitioned the Department of Homeland Security for an end to the use of the scanners. And a number of websites have made it easy to write to lawmakers and other government officials to protest. More creative protests have involved folks stripping down to their underwear or swimsuits, though doing so has not always resulted in exemption from the so called pat-down.

While some of the right wing is calling for a switch to racial profiling, there's some concern this may actually be happening already anyway, since the TSA makes no effort to keep track of who is or isn't pulled aside for extra screening. Moreover, as some have pointed out, people with disabilities or medical implants have long been subjected to extra screening, and the recent uproar may just be a sign that the invasive policing commonly faced by people of color has now been extended to the white and middle class. As Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report notes, "Yes – federal search policies at airports are a sign of a growing police state. But the police state has long been in effect in Black America."

As Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue, has pointed out, the modern police force has roots in the history of colonialism and slavery, and functions as the armed defender of a violent and unequal status quo. As the economy increasingly divides rich from poor, policing becomes more intrusive, in the interests of pacifying an increasingly restive population.

So while Americans left and right seem united in opposing the current intrusions of the TSA, we need to make clear that the solution will not lie in scapegoating some groups or singling them out for intrusive policing, but instead in creating a more equitable world, in which we can all look out for each other, and no one can profit from another's humiliation.


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