Thursday, November 18, 2010

Flying off the handle

You obviously know about John Tyner, the guy who became an instant folk hero by refusing to submit to the increasingly-customary crap people go through at airports.

He refused to go through the full-body strip scanner, then refused the groin grope. Okay, he was told, you won't submit, you can't fly. So I won't fly, he says, gets a refund on his ticket, and goes to leave the airport, escorted by TSA staff. Then he is told, oh, no, you can't leave the security area without submitting to the grope. Once we pick you for enhanced interro- er, search, you can't just leave. If you do, he was told, you'll be subject to a fine of $10,000.

The TSA confirmed that, actually calling a press conference to announce it had opened an investigation targeting Tyner - and to note that actual penalty could be $11,000.

Apparently realizing that it is not conducive to institutional power to be the target of bad headlines and public mockery - including calls to investigate the agency and for people to refuse the scanners the day before Thanksgiving (one of the busiest travel days of the year) - T&A chief John Pistole told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that "I don't anticipate anything" coming down on Tyner, while continuing to insist that the whole security jazz is absolutely necessary and THE TERRORISTS! THE TERRORISTS!

Which is pretty much how things stand right now. But as is often the case, there's something about this, some side to it, that I think hasn't received enough attention: the fine. Yes, he's apparently not going to be charged, which is good. But that still leaves the fact that he could have been and other people still can be in the future.

Get this now: The only argument offered in this whole airport security theater, the only basis for demanding people surrender their privacy and their Constitutional right against unreasonable search, is that flying is some sort of "privilege" and so you "willingly" agree to be scanned, digitally-stripped, and felt up in order to fly and if you don't agree, well, just don't fly. In fact,
[w]hen he tried to assert his rights, Tyner was told by a TSA supervisor on tape, “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.”
Janet Napolitano, F├╝hrer of the Ministry for the Defense of the Fatherland, said the same thing, blandly declaring that "if people want to travel by some other means," well, they can go right ahead and do that.

That is, take it or leave it. And we do mean take it: Tyner's experience was far from the worst. For example,
[r]adio host Owen JJ Stone ... claims that as he was passing through airport security this past weekend clad in sweatpants, he was informed by a TSA agent that the rules had changed for those wearing “baggy clothing.”

Stone further maintains that the agent told him “I have to go in your waistband, I have to put my hand down your pants.”
The same article described the case of Thomas Mollman, 54, of Missouri City, Texas, who said at Fort Lauderdale Airport he was felt up
between the underwear, right on the skin, all the way around the back, all the way around my front, 360 degrees, touched inappropriately.
Meanwhile, a woman from Amarillo is suing the government, claiming that during a grope
the agent pulled the plaintiff’s blouse completely down, exposing plaintiffs’ breasts to everyone in the area,
in the words of the suit. It also alleges that security staff laughed and made jokes about the incident "for an extended period of time," with one male T&A employee telling her he'd missed it so "he would just have to watch the video."

Such experiences can be summed up in Napolitano's touching plea to air passengers in a USA Today op-ed:
We ask for cooperation, patience and a commitment to vigilance in the face of a determined enemy.
That is, we expect passive submission and obedience and BE VERY AFRAID!

But hey, tell you want, grant that. Grant all of that just for the sake of argument. Grant for the moment that flying is a "privilege" and we "give up a lot of rights" for that "privilege." Tyner was not going to fly. Tyner had agreed that as a result of his grousing about the grope he would not be getting on that plane. He had accepted the rules and was heading to leave the airport.

And that's when officials threatened to prosecute him! They insisted that once he was in the security area, he couldn't leave without their permission. This even though the entire argument of the "security" system, the entire rationalization for all the scans, scopes, and gropes, no longer existed: He was not going to fly.

It was a true Morton's fork: His choice was either to submit - which he didn't want - or refuse, leave, and get fined $11,000 - which he also didn't want - or, apparently, to just stay in the security area until he starved (or became "more cooperative," in the creepy parlance of the security state).

But more to the point here, what possible rationale could there be for prosecuting him for leaving? Having been told, having the whole basis for the entire process being, agree or "travel by some other means," when he chose the latter he was told pretty much in so many words that he couldn't make that choice, that doing so is illegal. Why? For what? What is the crime here?

The excuse - I can't being myself to call it a reason - for this inanity is that the T&A doesn't want THE TERRORISTS to go into the security area, "gather intelligence" - that is, look around - and then leave.

Time for the next italicized question: Just how stupid does T&A think these people are? Just how lamebrained do they think anyone planning a terrorist strike is? You want to "gather intelligence?" Fine. You get a ticket, you go into the security area with the rest of the passengers, you scope the place out, you go through the screening, and you get on the goddam plane!

Oh, no no no, T&A assures us. That's not what would happen. Oh no, a terrorist wouldn't try to be inconspicuous, wouldn't try to fade into the crowd. Oh no, a terrorist would refuse the screening, turn around, and leave - thus drawing to themselves the attention of every f'ing security guard in the whole damn place. And will the prospect of that undesired attention deter them? No way - but the idea of a freaking fine will stop them in their tracks.

Head. Desk.

We are headed in a dangerous direction. Someone noted that when things have happened on planes, it has been the passengers who acted and prevented a worse outcome - and expressed a concern that the sort of people who would act in those sorts of situations are the same sorts who are increasingly choosing to "travel by some other means" and what that might mean in a future incident. However real that worry, it is clear that a docile, compliant public shuffling through airports in their stocking feet and standing passively with their hands raised while a stranger grabs their genitals is not one conducive to a free society.

So have we established a police state? No, of course not. But have we established the conditions for one, conditions where citizens are expected to passively cooperate with ever-more intrusive, ever-more psychologically dominant official demands such that simply to engage in what is for many an everyday experience -flying - becomes an act of submission to arbitrary authority? Yes. Without question.

At some point we have to as a people say "Back off - you've gone too far." I say we have reached, indeed we have passed, that point.

Footnote: There is some pushback. The very fact that Pistole had to answer Senate questions about Tyner and the screening process was one, temporary though it may have been. Besides the petition at Firedoglake to investigate the TSA and the call to boycott the scanners on November 24, linked above, there is the push by the US Airline Pilots Association for its members to refuse to cooperate with the scanners and call in sick if they find the grope too distressing. Meanwhile, two commercial pilots - one man and one woman - have filed suit, claiming the procedures are unconstitutional.

Privacy being an area where the left and right overlap, a number of right-wing sources have also condemned the intrusiveness of the screenings. This is from the National Post, a right-wing Canadian daily (links as per the original):
Apparently Ralph Nader, an accomplished crusader if ever there was one (for safety, ironically), thinks the naked-picture policy can be beaten. A bipartisan group of New Jersey politicians is pressing the TSA to end the use of the porno-scanners. Congressman Ron Paul has introduced to the House this week The American Traveler Dignity Act.
Jeffrey Goldberg and even World Nut Daily have joined in.

The T&A remains defiant - but Tyner's case could prove to be the one, the always-unpredictable one, that touches a nerve in just the right way at just the right time to make an actual difference. We can certainly hope so.


Ellie Finlay said...


Came over here from Unknown News and really like what I see so far. I'll definitely be back.

You know, I've just decided not to fly. I don't know what I'll do if there's a family emergency since I live in the midwest and most of my family is back east.

Also, I used to live overseas and have dear friends in a number of other countries. I'm facing the fact that I may never see some of them again.

But I'm not risking my health with all that radiation and I'm not willing to be photographed naked. And I'm not willing to be felt up.

So there we have it.

LarryE said...

First off, thanks for reading! And I hope you will indeed come back and feel free to comment.

I decided to refrain from flying a while ago. I think it was about the time people started having to take off their shoes and walk around in socks or barefoot. I just wasn't willing to put up with the crap.

While the numbers may not be large (so far), it is true that an increasing number of people are making that same decision.

Like you, I'm concerned about the possibility of never again seeing friends who live overseas. But there are limits to what I will "willingly" put myself through.

As for domestic travel, I'm a big fan of Amtrak. As I'm fond of telling people: fly, you see clouds; drive, you see pavement; take the train, you see scenery. :-)

So when Napolitano says we're free to "travel by some other means," I say "I'm way ahead of you."

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