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Washtenaw Flaneurade
26 November 2010
Worse Than Nazi Germany
Now Playing: Belle and Sebastian--"Me and the Major"

Not at all, of course, but how many of you just then thought the Internet had taken over my brain? More than a few?

I fly to Baton Rouge once a year, usually at Thanksgiving (although relatives' travel plans caused me to switch to Christmas last year, and a damn good thing too, as it enabled the best Thanksgiving/birthday combo ever). I don't mind flying, and used to have a fascination with airports (which has dwindled considerably in recent years). I hate commercial airlines with close to a passion. So I generally have mixed feelings about flying, and these were complicated considerably once I learned of the new security measures put into place by the TSA (Transport Security Administration).

Things got even more complicated in trying to untangle the various pros and cons of the situation. Let me be clear: at least, the TSA has done a spectacularly awful job explaining why these measures are necessary. I understand that least year's "underpants bomber" has been given as a proximate cause but (a) surely that's an argument for increased security in foreign airports (Dutch, if I remember rightly) and (b) there's been plenty of anecdotal evidence (unless it's all completely fabricated) that items like water bottles and other bigtime no-nos have actually slipped past the screeners (and surely this is one of the few places where anecdotal evidence is actually important for a change--it only takes one). I also have grave doubts about these measures as a whole, even the post-9/11 routine to which I had become pretty well used by now; security experts like Bruce Schneier have actually suggested going back to a pre-9/11 framework (though I think that's a bit excessive). Obviously the government should try and do all it can to make air travel as safe as possible, but is it ever possible to be completely safe in an airliner? Add to that the health concerns of scientists and laypeople over the new X-ray scanners and the grotesque spectacle of the "patdowns," and you had a very tricky situation for a traveler who doesn't care for airline flights in the first place.

It was also interesting in that this dilemma--scan or patdown--was the first big online kerfuffle to affect me directly. Usually during something like the Polanski extradition controversy or the Shirvell stalking circus (actually, I suppose the latter could have affected me directly as I might have conceivably run into the guy at one point), I'd amass information from a number of different sources and consider my opinion accordingly. Here, in the case of something I was actually scheduled to confront, it proved more intractable than usual. There are a few things that instantly raise my hackles--or at least mildly arouse my suspicions--than whenever I find them lying in wait on the Internet. One is the tendency to equate both American political parties or "extremes" as somehow being both equally bad. I am biased on the question, to be sure, as a self-described liberal (whose indulgence, from a left-wing perspective, of a problematic Democratic Party, can partially be attributed to the historically low curve under which I grew up in Louisiana). Ideologically, they may be equally unpleasant (and here we speak of extreme extremes), but the "extreme left" may have its share of dodgy characters, but in no way does it dominate the airwaves or (to some extent) Congress, the way the other side does. So when I see formulations, online or otherwise, I don't even try to restrain the eye-roll. On this issue, though, there seemed to be standard agreement on the measures' unprecedented (for middle- and upper-middle class whites, mostly male) violations of privacy. Was I perhaps mistaken in this?

Right-wing outlets condemned the moves because they violated libertarian tenets and could in some way be attributed to Obama. Left-wing outlets condemned them because they violated human rights, were much more intrusive for women and minorities... and for all I know, because they could in some way be attributed to Obama. After reading through some of the various arguments, I found myself in very broad general agreement, though with a number of caveats. As someone who's needed privilege-checking lessons in the past (and still does), I found it pretty instructive to read the observations that people of color (and to some extent women) put up with this sort of thing on a much more regular basis. Similar were the comments that the people who'd found little wrong with the Iraq War or torture of anyone, let alone innocent people, were now crying foul because their winkies were being cupped. None of that makes the measures any less intrusive or unjustified, but they were useful points to keep in mind. The latter, more right-wing objections also gave me pause, especially given some of the new congressional "leadership"'s avowal to try and shut down government 1995-style. I don't generally give much credit to conspiracy theories, but the accusation that the probable astroturfing of dissent was aimed at abolishing the TSA and replacing it with private firms sounded a little more plausible than usual (something tells me, that, oh, Xe wouldn't be much of an improvement). So... I was opposed, but it was definitely a qualified opposition.

I publicly announced the plan online and was taken to task by left-wing (I think) critics of the measures. Though I understand that "following orders" isn't much of an excuse, not everything is a "Niemoller moment" (any more than the Michigan smoking ban was implicitly tantamount to Nazism), and it wasn't much of a stretch to check my privilege (see?) and acquaint myself with the shit deal TSA staff have. I also have a hard time trusting the judgment of people using "why don't they just find other jobs?" in the present economy. I did sympathize, though, with the idea behind National Opt-Out Day. The TSA apparently urged people not to go for the patdowns, but then why offer them as a possible option in the first place? I wasn't about to criticize people for exercising their perfectly legal rights. What was less clear was how I would personally respond.

I was leaning towards taking the patdown. I honestly wasn't bothered by what TSA employees would be able to "see" (maybe my privilege talking again, though I was very aware of why people would be bothered), and my leeriness of the radiation from the scanners petered out once I reminded myself of how reminiscent of the worry over microwaves and cellphones the discussion was. In the end, I reckoned that I'd rather have my privacy violated by a human being than a machine. Then, the night before, I started flipflopping again, and did so pretty much right up to leaving the taxi at Detroit Metro. It turned out that I didn't have to worry, at least as far as my personal experience was concerned. There was only one scanner up, and I wasn't sent through it (didn't know there was a "choice"), although the guy behind me was (and that raises a whole other set of questions). There was hardly any line and nobody was taking patdowns. I even overheard a couple of other people who had gotten to the airport very early (as I had) in order to avoid a line, so at least I wasn't alone. My objections still stand, but the episode functioned just as much as a lesson in the misinformation powers of the Internet (like I needed one of those).

One thing is certain, and that's that the uncertainty surrounding my Thanksgiving trip was pretty much the last straw for me as far as air travel is concerned. I'd been checking the Amtrak schedules, and was kicking myself that I didn't make the switch I'd been mulling for the past several years before I got airline tickets. It was a good hundred bucks cheaper than my plane ticket, and I would have saved an extra hundred bucks as I wouldn't have to take the shuttle to and from the airport. The long hours spent en route could be a genuinely decompressing experience and the kind of honest relaxation I expect people rarely find on family holidays. There's lovely scenery, lots of space, a bar car, and the possibility of a long layover in Chicago (side trip to the Art Institute?). It's looking better every second. I suppose I'd better move soon in any case before the so-called "security theater" swallows up our dwindling railroad system...


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:14 AM EST
Updated: 26 November 2010 12:02 PM EST
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27 November 2010 - 9:50 AM EST

Name: "Tara"

Watching people react to this situation has been interesting. One of my Facebook friends said that she didn't want some dude making $7.75 an hour to be manhandling her kid. So, if the TSA agent were making $15 an hour, would that be better? Hmm...

I'm glad your flying experience was no shittier than usual. And while I haven't been on a train ride that lasted more than 7 hours, I'm guessing that's a better way to go.  You can bring your own food and booze, you can get up and walk around whenever you want, and it offers tons of great eavesdropping opportunities.

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