Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Keep Your Hands Off My Junk! And Other Happy Thanksgiving Travel Wishes

Lesbo TSA fantasy time.  Reuters photo.
It appears that our new national crisis is the danger of being irradiated, or the indignity of being aggressively patted down,  at the airport.  In response to one outraged male victim spontaneously telling a Transportation Safety Authority employee to "Keep your hands off my junk!" people on the right and the left seem to have united in the belief that the government is going too far by making sure that airline passengers are not rigged as boobs -- er, I mean, bombs.

You can even buy a tee shirt to let the TSA know how you feel about it.

Now, I don't mean to be unfeeling.  I heard the interview with the man who was publicly drenched in his own urine during a clumsy search. I have read about the flight attendant whose prosthetic breast was examined to see if it contained plastic explosives.  I saw the shivering child, whose shirt was removed by his father when he set off the alarm, having his tiny elastic waistband inspected by a TSA employee.  I sympathize with the fears of transpeople that they will be publicly exposed in hostile environments. It seems likely that people who harbor objects on their bodies made of silicone, rubber and plastic -- people who are vulnerable anyway -- will be targeted in ways that may make difficult lives more difficult.

There's something for everyone to hate here, particularly those of us who feel we get enough radiation year after year at the dentist and by just living in a thoroughly irradiated world that is saturated with the residue of nuclear testing.

But has anyone but me noticed the high degree of homophobia in the air, as people on the right and the left describe what is terrible about body searches that virtually no one has to go through if they would just agree to walk through the scanners and allow a complete stranger to look at the outlines of their naked body for seven seconds? Few critics see this as an official erosion of privacy, a concern voiced by  the ACLU.  Americans to the end, it is sex everyone is concerned about.  A man on the news a couple nights ago described his increasing discomfort as a male TSA official slid a hand up his thigh with a thumb fully extended towards his anus. Jane Hamsher, of the progressive Firedoglake (who has dubbed the full-body visual screening devices "the porno scanners") described the enhanced pat-down in a horrified post earlier today:  200 Capitol Hill staffers watched as a female TSA worker stroked another TSA workers breasts and butt.  Afterwards, an onlooker said that "it made people so uncomfortable to watch, that people were averting their eyes."

Why pull your punches, Jane?  What's bothering most people is that they are forced to be "gay" for the minute or so it takes to complete the security procedure.  In a rant where he orders the state to "Get your hands off my teabag,"  Rush Limbaugh reveals to us that the federal government, under the Obama administration, has become gay. "Obama-led government agents are acting like perverts in some places....and make no mistake, it is the government fondling us."  Obama could say "the fondling stops here.  All Obama would have to do is call a little press conference, a little speech.  All he would have to say is the fondling stops here....We have the Miranda warning.  Well, now we have the Obama warning.  You have the right to remain silent while we fondle you.  Anything you say while we fondle you can and will be used against you."

See what I mean?  What is interesting to me is that this appears to be an entirely non-partisan issue:  the federal government is being sexual with everyone, and it makes it even worse that it is same gender!  Imagine the outcry if the TSA hired children to do enhanced body searches of children.  How pornographic would that be?

Go here to read the myths and facts on the TSA blog ("OMG! They aren't just gay, they blog too?!?")  But in the meantime, here are five things I like less than the idea being patted down by a hot young TSA employee and having her wonder whether I was born into the world with that "junk" or not:

  • Being blown up in-flight;
  • Having my Middle Eastern, South Asian and black friends being racially profiled;
  • Being blown up on the runway;
  • Being taken hostage and flown into a building;
  • Being morally responsible for the estimated 500 civilians in Pakistan who have been killed in unmanned drone strikes by the Obama administration.  For every two terrorists that are killed, one civilian is killed, which is a lot higher number than the estimated 3% of American travelers who are body searched in airports on any given day.  In addition, it should be noted that most people survive a body search, whereas surviving a drone strike is a tougher proposition.

As travelers flounder about in their homophobic panic and American narcissism, has it occurred to them that we have brought this foolishness on ourselves by fighting a prolonged war that has produced an escalated counterinsurgency, metastasizing Al-Qaeda to more countries than it ever had bases in prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq?

I doubt it.


Clarissa said...

I'm shocked that you support these intrusive and humiliating TSA procedures. It's also offensive that you ascribe people's legitimate rejection of these procedures to homophobia. As an autistic, I react very badly when strangers (and not just strangers) touch me or invade my space in any way. The gender of those strangers is the last thing on my mind. I just don't want to be touched. Or stared at how I look under my clothes.

The world isn't easy as it is for autistics. Now I have to prepare to undergo these procedures that are more than likely to give me a full-scale panic attack. And then I have to be further insulted by the suggestion that I'm bothered by it not because I have an actual neurological condition but because I'm a homophobe.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Security experts whom I trust a lot, including Bruce Schneier, have explained very clearly that neither the "porno scanners" nor "junk patdowns" do the slightest thing to make us safer on planes, and are pure security theater. I can't find it now, but an Israeli security official was quoted as saying that the "porno scanners" are a massive waste of money and that is why Israel doesn't use them in their airports.

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Safe travels and a happy holiday to you, TR. I appreciate your take on the outcry about these measures, though I take Clarissa's point that some travelers will find them threatening for reasons that have nothing to do with homophobia.

Tenured Radical said...

Clarissa: I never said I *supported* the procedures, and only a very partial reading of the post would suggest that. What I don;t support is outrage about this issue isolated from the violence the US does around the globe that has created this problem. And I definitely don't support these homophobic responses in the media, or appreciate the lack of outrage about the number of people who have been harmed and imprisoned by these security procedures prior to recent events.

CPP: whatever the Israelis do for security is gold in my book.

Roxie: Happy turkey bird!

Anonymous said...

I am also shocked at your characterization of these protests as basically homophobic, and by your claim that "few critics" see this as an official erosion of privacy. That criticism is everywhere (as are many other perfectly valid concerns).
-a frequent reader who is supremely puzzled by your post

Anonymous said...

Follow-up re: Israel's methods:
What Israel does is (in part) behavioral profiling by trained experts, and it's hard to see it going over well here due to concerns about racial/ethnic profiling.
-the frequent reader again

Anonymous said...

As a frequent (non-commenting) reader of your blog, I tend to agree with you on the majority of the issues you bring up. I have to say though, I'm with Clarissa on this one.

While there are CERTAINLY homophobic overtones to the rambling objections coming from Limbaugh, I simply can't believe that this is the root of most people's objections to "enhanced pat-downs". Regardless of the gender of the searcher or the searchee, these procedures force unwanted, often public, genital contact on people simply trying to board a plane. This is uncomfortable and intrusive in ANY situation, let alone a hurried and crowded security line during peak travel season.

While I find it reasonable to give up some expectation of privacy for the sake of security, these new procedures are nothing more than security theater... marginally (if at all) improved techniques that somehow hope to deter terrorists via their sheer overcompensation for past attack attempts, or at the very least make it less likely for a perceived security failure to lower the odds of our incumbent politicians' reelection.

Either way, we are conditioned (for good reason, I believe, considering the prevalence of all manner of sexual assaults) to perceive and experience unwanted or forced genital contact as a horribly unpleasant and traumatizing experience... and while many people (myself included) are able to, with significant effort, push that discomfort aside in order to travel, it does make these procedures acceptable or necessary. Regardless of the individual conducting these searches, regardless of their gender and orientation, this is NOT a sacrifice we should have to make for security, and this belief does not make people homophobic.

-Greg S., Wes '10

PS - to end this first comment on a positive note, I have always thoroughly enjoyed your blog, whether I fully agree or not! Thanks for the entertainment and procrastination you've supplied me with over the years.

Tenured Radical said...

Why thank you Greg.

Yes, all of you, I buy the part about it being theater, although I am interested in why no real way of searching travelers is acceptable (Israeli or American.) My question remains: if the one thing we could do to make air travel more secure is stop fighting this war, and remove our troops from the Middle East, why is that not part of the discussion? And why is the fact that the United States is actually killing innocent people abroad less of a concern than making travelers uncomfortable at home?

There is no part of this post where I fail to express sympathy for those who are discomfited or harmed by these searches, or where I "approve" them. And yet the failure to condemn them uncritically as if they had nothing to do with the vast tolerance progressives have for this war is perceived as just that. I find this strange and worth note. Americans privilege themselves and their own feelings -- first, last, and always -- and it doesn't matter what part of the political spectrum they are on in the end, does it?

Finally, I think the homophobia - by progressives, common travelers, the news media as well as Rush Limbaugh -- is a huge problem, not a little aside.

Science Lurker said...

As a geneticist, I object greatly to the radiation in the screens. High energy/ionizing radiation causes doublestrand breaks to DNA. We are not good at fixing double-strand breaks to DNA. So, in a fairly dose-dependent way, we are being mutagenized each time we are subjected to it.

But I also cringed when I was in DC and saw lots of young men and women at the entrance to every Federal building, probably earning minimum wage, sitting by Xray devices scanning everyones bags all day. I think those jobs should be restricted to those over (standard) reproductive age, whether or not they expect to use their reproductive organs. If it would not tend to get me arrested, I've always been tempted to borrow a geiger counter from the lab and see how much those supposedly safe machines leak and scatter. And I tell my own children to move fast, and stay as far as they can from the machine.

The big difference in Israel is that the security agents are NOT underpaid, undereducated semi-irradiated members of the working class, they are experts who are trained to use their intelligence -- you know, those elitists that Americans are even more suspicious of than terrorists.

Anonymous said...

Comic relief?

Sisyphus said...

My trans friends have said they will not travel, as they don't want their bodies policed or deemed (even more) worthy of suspicion.

The pregnant postdoc at my school has canceled her flights, including her flight to MLA, even though she's on the job market.

I can only imagine what it would be like for a rape or molestation survivor --- I am neither, and I have had had meltdowns in student health during my annual exams when I have been touched and treated callously as just another body to be hurried through the assembly line. I'm hoping I don't react like that for any of my upcoming holiday trips --- the whole thing seems a useless violation of my personal space and civil liberties.

I do agree, however, that Limbaugh is a total jerk and a homophobe, but that's not news.

Susan said...

I remain confused about the objections to the scanners (science aside). I understand why the pat-down may bother some (though I'd much rather be safe and pat-down than dead and not-pat-down). But the objections to scans baffle me.

That said, Israeli airport security is based on behavioral profiling that occurs not only through watching people but by engaging them in conversation. Anyone who boards a flight to Israel or in Israel will be asked questions -- often by multiple people -- while waiting to check in and get their bags scanned. The questions are fairly basic -- where have you been/are you going? why are you traveling? where did you pack your bags? [if you're not Israeli] do you know Hebrew? how? why? where did you learn? have you been to Israel before? and the like -- but give security officers a chance to get a sense of the people they're talking to. It's de rigeur for those who travel to and from Israel, though I can only imagine the uproar from Americans who think what they've been doing, where, and why counts as private info not subject to government questioning.

BJ said...

First, I'm a zenith student and frequent reader first time commenter. Second: I agree with both the post and most of the comments, but I'd like to add that one of the most common mis-characterizations of the situation is that you don't have to be patted down if you just say yes to the scanners. Pat-downs are not uncommon at airports, regardless of this new technology. They've always been used on those who set off the metal detectors (and can't immediately identify the cause, i.e a belt or whatever). I've received a pat down because they thought they saw something suspicious in my bag (it was a case of harmonicas I think...admittedly something that might look very odd on an x-ray). I've had relatives pulled aside and given a pat down, apparently because their ticket was under a different name than the rest of the family they were traveling with. And I've witness pat-downs from people being pulled out of the line seemingly at random. These pat-downs were not a big deal, but the new policy makes them a big deal by expanding them to include touching which clearly crosses the line into sexual harassment. Forgetting the people who opt out, there will still be all sorts of people who get patted down for reasons they have little control over. And there absolutely is an element of profiling in those decisions. 3 percent of travelers is a lot of people; millions of people will fly over thanksgivings, so hundreds of thousands of people will be effected the new pat-downs, and it could happen to anyone. Also, I appreciate you mentioning the effect on trans and gender non-conforming individuals, but I don't think we can say it enough times. It is no longer possible for a trans or gender non-conforming person to travel on an airplane without being outed to someone, whether the person is merely looking at an image of their genitalia, or feeling them up. Granted, this is not why most of the people upset about this issue seem to be upset. But it is a huge reason why I am upset. I feel like these policies were not made necessary by America's imperialist wars, because they're not necessary period. They are justified by the wars, but they are not an effect of them, rather they are part and parcel of the kinds of policies that lead to both institutionalized sexual violence at home (which I think is a fair characterization of these searches) and imperial wars abroad. I think you are completely right to insist that you can't talk about one without also talking about the other, though.

Anonymous said...

I object to these searches because they are both useless and dehumanizing. Useless because explosives concealed in body cavities would not be detected by these procedures -- are we going to see TSA folks peering up people's butts next? That's what it would take to be "safe". As for dehumanizing, when we do this, the terrorists have already in some sense won.

There is a homophobic undertone to the protest because the screener is same-sex. But I think this is just a byproduct of the way the procedure is done -- I suspect the outrage would be considerably greater if the screener were opposite-sex!


Another Damned Medievalist said...

I didn't see that you were saying the procedures were ok. I agree that some of the objection is homophobic. I'm not trying to minimize that, but honestly, I think it's also much more basic. I think most people are uncomfortable with the idea of having a complete stranger touch their genitalia, full stop. And the homophobic thing doesn't really match up to the logic of people choosing same-sex gynecologists or urologists. I think the context -- the lack of choice, the power relationships, the intrusion on our rights to our bodies, the implication that we are all guilty -- is much more important. Most of the people I know (anecdata, but no worse than most of the news reports) don't want ANYBODY patting them down this way.

Me, I just think the risks and the dehumanization factor are not worth the supposed benefits. I also think that causing this level of discomfort among travelers means that the people who really are up to something will stand out much less.

Anonymous said...

"I think the context -- the lack of choice, the power relationships, the intrusion on our rights to our bodies, the implication that we are all guilty -- is much more important."


When the government can force you to endure having complete strangers sticking their hands in your underwear in public for no particular reason, then I think we've crossed the line from "reasonable" to "unreasonable" and from "use" to "abuse" of power. The same is true for the porno scanners.

Should this discussion be divorced from the larger question of global use/abuse of government power? No. Should we put up one heck of a fight against these sorts of things? YES.

As for myself - seriously, I don't think I'll be flying. Having been sexually assaulted, I find it difficult to allow strangers or casual acquaintances to touch me in certain ways, even under benign circumstances. I would probably flip out at the prospect of being groped by some stranger at the airport, and heck, I'd probably end up getting arrested or something - simply for rejecting the notion that the government has a right to fondle me. Just the abstract thought of it makes me feel ill.

c . . . said...

so... setting aside the [rather difficult to set aside] question of just how problematic the pat-downs and scanners are, I want to be sure we don't miss TR's provocative and important point about USAmericans' relative outrage about, say, an airport pat-down and a prison waterboarding. If we object to unwanted intimate intrusions designed [effectively or not] to be sure we aren't 'guilty,' we should be more outraged at violent intrusions designed [effectively or not] to be sure that others, including non-US nationals, aren't 'guilty.'

I know that most readers here probably do share that objection - but I think TR is right that the outrage in general is pretty unbalanced (perhaps even among those of us who do object to 'enhanced interrogation' and other USAmerican-promoted violence). Maybe this is just a symptom of being unable to imagine the experiences of others. It's still pretty appalling.

Norbert said...

I think that there are a couple of other things going on here.

Since its inception, the TSA has used underpaid workers with relatively low levels of education and training. This means that we couldn't implement Israeli-style interview screening even if we wanted to. Instead, we have taken low paid, non-unionized personnel and given them a pretty crude security tool. (In the form of the strip search, but also with the scanners: the scanners reduce the identification of security threats to the least common denominator of *visibility*.) But here's the irony: we've also given them a lot of effective power over the bodies of complete strangers. It's the playground monitor problem: when take an unhappy kid and give him/her a lot of power, it shouldn't be surprising that s/he uses it in a way that antagonizes the other kids.

What is remarkable about this episode (and here I think that I agree, in a a way, with TR) is the way in which it demonstrates the banalization of security issues in the post-9/11 world--their reduction to bureaucratic directives, technological salvation (the scanners), and simple procedures (pat-downs) that can deployed across hundreds of airport nationwide by underpaid personnel.

While I don't like the political use that Rush Limbaugh is making of all of this, I wonder if there isn't something healthy about this quasi-libertarian reaction (and maybe this is where I disagree with TR). The government conducting the two wars abroad and the government that has instructed the TSA employees to grope our bodies is the *same* government. It seems naive, to me, to question its assertion that the wars are for our protection but not question the same assertion when it is made about the intrusive searches. While there is a difference between the TSA searches, waterboarding, and a drone attack, there is also a family resemblance between them: they all opt for fantasies of technological and bureaucratic mastery while banalizing human dignity and human life. Of course there's a big difference between an uncomfortable air traveler in Detroit and a dead civilian in Afghanistan, but you have to start somewhere.

Tenured Radical said...

Norbert: We don't disagree at all -- I think this is brilliant, in fact.

Scrabblegrrl said...

It is a conundrum. I have thought long and hard since this controversy started about both the homophobic aspects and about the problems of people for whom being touched at all will cause trauma. I don't know the answer, of course. I don't want anyone blown up but having had nightmares just as the result of a hospital stay when others had to touch me to care for me, I have just a little of the feeling of those who will be traumatized.
Wish I knew the answer. Thanks for writing on this topic and thanks to all who commented.
Clarissa--you have a neurological condition, and others have suffered abuse, but many/most of the rest (including "Mr. Junk" of course) ARE homophobes. Many men would just make jokes and look forward to it if it were a woman inspector, of course hoping she would look like a playboy model, instead of objecting on a civil rights basis.

Anonymous said...

I was just coming here to post what Norbert said. I feel incredibly frustrated that nowhere in conversations about this issue have I seen anyone mention the central role of capitalism/private industry/etc. TR, I totally agree with you about the homophobia, but I disagree that this might be a worthwhile trade of our civil liberties. Because these scanners are NOT about making us safer. They are about a large arms company lobbying the government for a contract which will make them billions of dollars. The reason that Israeli-style security, which could still be incredibly rigorous even if it did not include racial profiling, will never happen in the US, is 100% because that would require investing in people. They need to be paid more than minimum wage (what many security folks currently make!) and properly trained. The interest of the US government is in investing in large arms companies (where the body scanners come from), rather than people. I also feel like a lot of these reports about security personnel being insensitive/jerking off/picking out attractive women for the scanner/etc. have everything to do with the fact that we are putting untrained, minimum wage employees in charge of sensitive stuff. None of this will ever work unless there are some standards for the people employed in these positions. And the fact that those will never happen betrays just how little anyone actually cares about security.

They are not choosing what to use based on what makes us safer, they are choosing it based on lobbying, campaign contributions, and what makes them richer. And here, too, we have the comparison you were asking for between this issue and America's colonial wars: they are motivated by the exact same thing. Capital.

Anonymous said...

Scrabblegrrl, be careful in your generalizations. As a man, I am very uncomfortable when confronted by female urologists, just as many women are when confronted by male gynecologists. It feels like a violation to me. If that makes me a misogynist, then what does it make the women who feel uncomfortable with male doctors?

And if some women were to be much more uncomfortable being patted down by men than by women, what would you call that? Would you say they are being "heterophobic"?


Tenured Radical said...

I think we can agree that it is well within the range of reason for everyone to not want their genitals, or any part of the body which is private (which could be the whole body) touched by a stranger of either gender. Some people like it, or do not mind: some of us have built up a tolerance to it that exceeds the tolerance of other people.

I do think that the comments raise a number of interesting points that expand on questions of state power, but also of the horror and outrage that your average American Joe and Joette feel when undergoing "dehumanizing" searches that they are perfectly willing to sign off on when the same things, and worse, are being done to so-called terror suspects. And how do we express our outrage? By calling the searches queer and perverted.

Americans' utter faith in their own innocence, and in their right to a privacy that they deny others, utterly boggles me.

Ellie said...

Thank you, TR and Norbert, for saying far more eloquently what I've been thinking since this whole outcry began.

FrauTech said...

Anonymous said: "When the government can force you to endure having complete strangers sticking their hands in your underwear in public for no particular reason, then I think we've crossed the line from "reasonable" to "unreasonable" and from "use" to "abuse" of power. The same is true for the porno scanners."

I think it's important to mention the government isn't MAKING you do anything. They're in fact giving you a choice between body scan or pat down. And even then, you don't have to fly!

I agree with what TR said, that the reactions are largely homophobic. I've been selected for one of the "random" pat downs in the past so nobody was getting angry about it back then. I think it's annoying, but I also recognize there are unfair tradeoffs between safety and rights. The city of London is littered with cameras watching you. I think plenty of people say "well if you aren't doing anything illegal what have you got to worry about" in that case.

I also think (as I wrote a post a little while ago) that this is about body shame. And we as a nation should get over that. It's not porn if I'm not performing sexual acts or being asked to "do" anything for whoever is watching. It's just my body. It's probably not a whole lot more specific than you could infer if I wasn't wearing loose clothing. I think there's a difference between being sexually objectified and just accepting that you have a body and people see it. Sort of like going to a nude beach and being okay with that. But I agree it's a darn shame it's minimum wage people who are involved here, it would be better if we treated them with more respect for their profession because i think they would in turn treat us (the travellers) with more respect.

Frowner said...

Hi there! I'm a reader and virtually always a lurker. On those progressive and radical blogs that I read (which are probably more focused on gender, sexuality and homophobia than most), the references to gender I've read are from folks who either--through some bureaucratic error--had a pat-down from an opposite-gender person or who fear that this is what will happen.

I have read a lot of comments from fat people, though, or people who feel fat. We (and I'm not even especially fat) are shamed a lot about our bodies and often told that they are disgusting, particularly disgusting to touch. Flying is already fraught for us because so many people feel free to be mean or abusive to us about our size--out bodies are already considered the legitimate topic of public moralizing and inquiry. I feel a lot of anxiety around flying even though I fit easily into seats, don't need an seat-belt extender and have never had anyone complain about my size. So the thought of being touched in public by anyone and the thought of some TSA creep making fun of our bodies when we're scanned is horrible. Do you think TSA people aren't making fun? I'm sure they're taking camera-phone pictures of particularly risible images, etc etc.

You point out that most USians don't care about those dead or injured in USian imperialist wars. I think that's true, but I think that it is precisely abusive, intrusive policing and surveillance that maintain this attitude. The organizing trainings that I've taken suggest that people find it difficult to care about remote, "abstract" problems when they feel that they have little power over their own living conditions.

On a side note, I'm afraid of encountering homophobia from TSA agents. As a visibly queer, gender-nonconforming person, I have had clearly homophobic interactions with straight women medical professionals, with straight women strangers when riding on the elevator, etc. I am not looking forward to the virtually inevitable interactions with some straight woman who will be visibly squicked at having to touch the fat queer.

Anonymous said...

To a large extent, isn't this another one of those conflicts which is really played out entirely on the political right of the US to which a center-left government is forced to respond, knowing full well than any response will yield protests and condemnation, a no-win situtation? The Ruby Ridge and Waco shootouts or the Elian Gonzales case had precisely the same dynamic, a conflict between the law-and-order and government-off-our-backs conservatives, both demanding action from a bewildered government with no obvious interest in the outcome. In the case of transportation safety, it's a complete lose-lose situation: those who want to find a way around the safeguards will find a way around them, while any government which shows any backing away from even the least useful safeguards will be held responsible should something happen.

Kimberly said...

Some evidence of homophobia at play in this debate (granted, by an idiot):

Tdawg said...

to me it's the fact that the machines are not regulated by any radiologist organization, and may be giving you an awesome dose of radiation as you pass through. No certifications at all, they will tell you they are "safe" all day long, but they will also tell you a lot of things... Also, I really don't like the idea of people putting their hands on me either. Due to this, I will not be flying. Only I can stick my hands in my undies.