Sunday, November 21, 2010

Don't Humiliate Good Americans -- Just Bad Ones and Foreigners

Here's a good supplement to what I was trying to talk about yesterday. Glenn Greenwald linked to this story in his Twitter feed today, with the comment:
A new daily horror RT @andylevy: Add "being covered in urine" to the list of small prices we're being asked to pay by TSA
For a moment I thought some traveler had been covered in someone else's urine -- treated like a prisoner in one of our military dungeons, in other words, or a gay student in one of our high schools. But no. What happened was that a retired teacher from Michigan, "a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag," was chosen to submit to an "enhanced" patdown as he passed through Detroit Metro Airport, presumably because the scanner had picked up on the bag. He had to ask twice to be screened in private.
“One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office... And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.” ...

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.” Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.
It's a disturbing, even infuriating tale, but it's about inadequate training and incompetence on the part of TSA agents, not the more general issue of whether "we" are giving up "our" civil liberties by submitting to security screening when we travel. The article also quotes one
Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Association, which works with businesses and the disability community, [who] called what happened to Sawyer “unfortunate.”

“But enhanced pat-downs are not a new issue for people with disabilities who travel," Lipp said. "They've always had trouble getting through the security checkpoint."

I find it difficult to write about this, because it seems to me (though I also know better) that it should be obvious that security screening should be organized so as to do as little violence as possible to people's dignity, whether they have complicated medical conditions or not. But then, such matters are decided at the top level by people like George Bush and Barack Obama (scroll down to Obama's remarks on the TSA there), through corporate Milo Minderbinder types like Michael Chertoff below them, and by people like you and me as you work down through the hierarchy, so it's not surprising that people's dignity is compromised by TSA and by institutions everywhere. When I read Sawyer's story I remembered this parable by Philip Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment:
It's like the elementary school teacher who didn't let you get out of your seat unless you raised your hand to go to the toilet. And it didn't matter if you peed in your pants. I still remember in first grade, a little girl raised her hand and said, "I have to go to the bathroom." The teacher said, "No, put your hand down." The kid peed all over herself. Everybody laughed at her.
But then I also remembered the political philosopher Michael Neumann's remarks about respect:
Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
I thought of this because Mr. Sawyer also told MSNBC, "I am a good American and I want safety for all passengers as much as the next person. ... But if this country is going to sacrifice treating people like human beings in the name of safety, then we have already lost the war." The term "good American" got my attention. We have already lost the war, then, because this country has failed to treat people like human beings throughout its history. I understand and sympathize with Sawyer's outrage at the way he was treated, but it sounds as though he only noticed that people were being dehumanized in the name of America's safety when he had a bad experience. It's probably a losing struggle even to get this country to treat air travelers with dignity, let alone dusky foreign children and their parents in countries that no one has ever heard of, but the two are intimately interrelated. (Remember that in the US, the murder of the father of the children in that video clip was regarded as a PR problem for "us," not a crime against them.) My personal definition of a "good American," if I were going to use that tainted term, would be someone who objects to his government hurting other people, not just himself.