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TSA Scanners and Us vs. Them

So, the TSA is at it again - only this time they're going in the other direction. In response to all the complaints about those full-body scanners, they have introduced new technology that is apparently more modest. They still scan you, but the TSA agent will only be shown a scan of you if the computer recognizes something suspicious. May not be criminal; the article gives an example of a guy with a long pony-tail. But most of us won't have those ever-so-explicit grainy photos of ourselves taken.

I'm no great fan of these scanners. In spite of some comments I've made to some of you privately, I do tend to think they're overreaching, Constitution-speaking. (Warrantless searches, anyone?) More dangerously, I also think they're perpetuating a myth that if we just take the right steps we will be perfectly safe. No one is ever perfectly safe, ever. I wouldn't mind seeing the scanners going away, except I suspect I'd be equally unhappy with most of the other options.

But what really goads me is the reaction to all of this. It's not that the TSA scanners are ineffective. (I suspect they are.) It's not even that we as a society have decided this is a bridge too far for everyone. It's that we've decided that it's too invasive for people like us. People who look Arab have been subjected to intense screenings and pat-downs for years, and no one has minded all that much. Certainly not the people who are objecting too much. they didn't mind peoples' phones being tapped, suspected terrorists being held without due process at Guantanamo. They didn't mind much more extreme measures, like sending Americans into battle against a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. According to iCasualties.org, there have been 4,436 Americans killed and more than 32,000 injured in Iraq, and that doesn't even include other allied soldiers or Iraqi civilians. To say nothing about the situation in Egypt. If Americans weren't primed to think that Arab Muslims were threats to our security, I suspect our reaction to that democratic uprising would be very different indeed.

If the TSA scanners made us more secure, and if we are willing to ask nearly 4,500 Americans die for the rest of our safety, I would consider going through a TSA scanner my patriotic duty. There's no such thing as absolute security, of course, and there are better ways to improve airplane security than with passenger screenings. But that's not the point people are making. It's that they're embarrassed to have their genitalia photographed.

Now a computer will be doing the first round of screening. I remember the early days of voice recognition, and I know I wouldn't trust my safety to a computer subroutine. Certainly not if I was going to ask all of those people to die to protect said security.

Ask yourself a simple question: do you think the same people who are happy to let Saul through security with a computer scan would be willing to do that if his name was Suleiman? I ask not because I think Arabs *are* more likely to commit security-related crimes (NB to Rep. King: most aren't terrorists, and most do a damned good job helping in terrorism-related investigations). But I do think people would feel differently about Muslims and Arabs being subjected to this level of scrutiny. Why? Because they've reacted that way in the past.

And that's just wrong.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
lady_branwyn
Feb. 11th, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
What if we had taken all the money that goes to "Homeland Security" and various wars and spent it instead on programs for economic development at home and overseas? :(
For two years back in the 00s, Lord Branwyn commuted weekly to a job in the South. With his Mediterranean looks and rather odd last name, he was always singled out for special attention by the security screeners. Despite the fact that he was always on the same flights going through the same airports week after week for years. Profiling is alive and well.
Yes, the Amercian reaction to events in Egypt has been rather odd.
marta_bee
Feb. 11th, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, wouldn't that be a wonderful world! I am sure not everything would be perfect, but I think I would still feel like we were doing everything we could to help the less fortunate.

I feel a bit sorry for Lord B. I don't look "Mediterranean," really, but I was flitting back and forth between Germany and the U.S. at least once a year for a while, so my passport raised a few eyebrows. That was bad enough. To be singled out because of a (perceived) ethnicity would have been worse.
azalaisdep
Feb. 12th, 2011 12:45 am (UTC)
To say nothing about the situation in Egypt. If Americans weren't primed to think that Arab Muslims were threats to our security, I suspect our reaction to that democratic uprising would be very different indeed.

Haven't actually investigated US media responses... you mean the cheering-and-jumping-up-and-down (or, in a more British tenor, "good on 'em") reaction over here isn't being replicated Stateside? [Is disappointed, but not entirely surprised...]

Edited at 2011-02-12 12:45 am (UTC)
marta_bee
Feb. 12th, 2011 01:16 am (UTC)
I've been keeping more of an eye on the health care debate (and, you know, living) so anyone else reading this, feel free to jump in. But as I understand it, there are really two factors going on.

  1. Institutionally, the American and Egyptian armies have pretty strong ties. They've done a lot of officer swaps (American military serving in Egypt's armed forces and vice versa. Which necessarily means that a lot of the people on the news shows talking about foreign policy have a lot invested in the Mubarak regime.
  2. There are a frightening number of Americans who are Islamophobic and think that all Islamic groups are necessarily Islamicist. Doesn't help that you have names like the Muslim Brotherhood involved, and there were some attacks on Coptic Christians back around Christmas. I am hearing a lot of really scary, crazy talk that amounts to "the Muslims are taking over, they'll impose their shariah law and nuke Israel and then we're next, baby!" With some jabs about Obama being soft on terrorism thrown in for good measure.


It is, quite frankly, embarrassing - and cringeworthy in a head/desk sort of way...
julifolo
Feb. 12th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC)
A comment I read
(I can't remember where) was complaining that why were people complaining about TSA scans & searches, because equivalent searches & disrespect happen to blacks/latinos/poor whites every day.

People complaining about the solitary confinement of Manning, when solitary & deliberately moving prisoners away from families has been SOP for thousands.

Same as progressives not fighting hard enough against Hyde amendment (which only applied to poor women), and the new Congress is about to make worse-than-Hyde apply to everyone.

It's all very disgusting & frightening. You're right. We shouldn't be deciding if something is wrong or not by whether it affects us or only them.
marta_bee
Feb. 15th, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
Re: A comment I read
I completely agree. I really have no business being upset about what happens because it's happening to me.

Of course, maybe the fact that it's now happening to me will make me more aware of it. That's understandable. But if that's the case, I have to be prepared to say that, in the future, it's not okay for it to happen to anyone - whether they look like me or not.
ithilwen
Feb. 17th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
Too many Americans are bigoted against Middle Easterners and Muslims, yes. But I can't help but be happy that the TSA is backtracking at least a little bit on the scanner thing, even if it's just do to the prudishness of those same bigots. The scans ARE a warrantless search, and plenty of people have perfectly innocent and legal things they'd like to have remain hidden under their clothing when they travel.
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