Opting out

Last week, on the way back from California, the security line at SFO was funneling everybody through a backscatter machine. This was the first time I’d been confronted with one (they weren’t using one at JFK), and I said I’d like to opt out.

A TSA employee directed me to stand aside, and then asked me my reasons for opting out. She didn’t ask my name. I said I was concerned about privacy and radiation, and she wrote that down on a clipboard. Another TSA employee, a man, took me to an area within full sight of all the security lines, and as he put on rubber gloves, he began to explain the pat-down procedure. At every step of the way, he was careful to explain where his hands were going next. It was, as you’ve probably heard, a very intimate search, and I didn’t enjoy being searched this way in full sight of everybody else. (In fact, I had previously asked if I could be searched in private, and he said that it was possible but we’d have to wait for a supervisor, and I didn’t want to spend any more time waiting around than necessary.) After the search was done, he said I was free to go. The whole thing took about five minutes.

Every TSA employee I interacted with was polite and professional. Perhaps that was due in part to the fact that I didn’t act with indignation or anger towards them—I don’t often believe in harassing rank-and-file workers over a policy they didn’t put in place. Not that I wasn’t annoyed with the whole thing: I think the policy makes no sense. I think installing machines that take huge numbers of naked digital photos of people is bound to lead to cases of abuse. I think if we took those resources and applied them to actual intelligence work it would do far more to make us safer. And the ties to Michael Chertoff make the whole thing seem like a scam.

Those aren’t really the reasons I opted out, though. I’m not actually that concerned that my naked photo will be saved and circulated, nor am I that concerned about the health risks from the radiation. Mostly I opted out because I don’t agree with the use of the machines at all, and it feels important to me to act based on that belief.

Am I deluding myself? Is this just empty symbolism, with myself as the only audience? Perhaps. I didn’t do it with the expectation that my orderly opt-out would precipitate some crisis in the system, and if the Washington Post’s poll is any indication, most people are fine with these machines anyway.

Ever since the NYPD instituted random bag searches at subway stations a few years back, I’ve been opting out of those too. And I suppose one of the important things I get from that is the practice of saying “no” to authority. There’s no point in being contrary for its own sake, but it seems that in the specific times when you firmly believe you’re in the right, you ought to have the fortitude to refuse a request from an authority figure. How are you going to get that fortitude if you don’t practice? It seems like the sort of thing a citizen should be good at.

So maybe I opt out because I want to, because I am able to, and because I want to make sure that I still have the small courage it takes to do so. If that costs me five minutes of embarrassment every time I get on a plane, that’s probably an acceptable price.

Our frumpy love is unstoppable

Via Buzzfeed. Congrats to Shelly & Ellen, and all gays and lesbians in California. And really, to all of us.

Gay Iraqis, hunted in their own country

Gay Iraqis are living in heightened fear as they become the victim of militia and government terror, reports New York Magazine:

... in February of this year, something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies, a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their gay relatives. The bodies of gay men like Mazen and Namir, often mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to have been killed.

The eruption of violence in February appears to have been an unintended consequence of the country’s broader peace. In the wake of the surge in American troops and the increase in strength of the Iraqi military and police forces, Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni and Shia militias have wound down their attacks against American forces and one another. Now they appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of engendering public support. Gay Iraqis seem to believe that the Mahdi Army is the main, but not only, culprit in the purges. “They’ve started a new game to make people follow them. No more whores, no more lesbians, no more gays,” a friend of Fadi’s told me. “They’re sending a message to people: ‘We are still here, and we can do anything we want.’ ”

The article also describes the efforts of Human Rights Watch to spirit some of the men out of the country to safety, and the difficulties of that mission. I went to the HRW site and was surprised to see there isn’t any specific fundraising appeal for this effort—I suspect that making this a focused campaign, operationally and in terms of fundraising, might enable them to do some more good in this area.

In the meantime, it’s issues like these that make me wonder how long we in the U.S. will decide to stay engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between reports of Iraqi policemen torturing and killing innocent gay men, and reports of widespread electoral fraud in Afghanistan, there’s probably some point where the American people stop caring about fine distinctions and get disgusted by the whole thing. (Regardless of whose fault it is that it got that way in the first place, obviously.)

We could use gryphons, but we don't use gryphons.

At your own doors

On this Memorial Day, with the debate about American torture still deeply unsettled, Andrew Sullivan finds some choice words about liberty from Abraham Lincoln:

“And when … you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned, are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle.

“Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defence is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.”

Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

The English language had to disappear first

Andrew Sullivan on the language used in the OLC memos, and in the national discussion of torture overall:

As Orwell predicted, the English language had to disappear first. The president referred to waterboarding prisoners as “asking them questions.” Bringing prisoners’ temperatures down to hypothermia levels was simply an “alternative set of procedures.” The entire process is “enhanced interrogation.” Even the press has to find a way to call it merely “harsh”, a term now changed to “brutal” in the NYT, even though nothing we found out yesterday was more brutal than anything we knew about before.

Congratulations, Vermont

From AP: Gay marriage advocate Beth Robinson, center, holds back tears following the passage of a gay marriage bill in Montpelier, Vermont, on Tuesday.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the first state in the union to vote in gay marriage should be Vermont, but it’s welcome news nonetheless. I’ve written in the past about how I want this to happen, but ideally it will happen through the legislature and not the courts … I understand the pressing need when expressed in terms of individual same-sex couples, but I think when we try to do this by appealing to judges instead of public opinion we end up taking shortcuts that cause problems in the end. And the lowercase-a anarchist in me can’t help but think that it’s just good medicine for everybody to be forced to try to talk to other people to make public policy, instead of just recruiting the best lawyers we can get.

Anyway, congratulations Vermont, and I can only hope that New York state doesn’t follow too far behind. I’m going to go buy 10 pints of Ben & Jerry’s now.

North Korea's "video revolution"

The Economist on technology and North Korea:

Andrei Lankov of the Australian National University, an astute observer of North Korea, describes how a relatively minor technological revolution in China changed the lives of many North Koreans. Earlier this decade DVD players fell dramatically in price, so South Korean households quickly dumped their old VCRs in favour of the new players. Smugglers picked up the old units for next to nothing and sold them in North Korea for $40 or so apiece—a price that plenty of urban North Korean families could afford if they saved up.

The consequence was what Mr Lankov calls a “video revolution”: a flood of South Korean soap operas, melodramas and music videos entering North Korea by the same route and delighting new audiences. The impact of the astounding affluence on display—the stars’ clothes and cars, Seoul’s glittering skyline—exposes the central lie on which the regime bases its claim to rule: that South Korea is backward, impoverished and exploited. Korean-language programming from abroad on radio sets imported from China (and thus not tuned permanently to state radio) reinforces this discovery. Thus, disillusion and anger with the regime only mounts.

The shadow over Taiwan

So maybe you’re an American leftist who’s enraged with our recent slide towards klepto-theocracy, and you’ve given serious thought to the idea of leaving the country. Canada’s probably high on your list, but if you want to put a few more kilometres behind you, you might also be considering France, since a Gallic expatriation has the added bonus of pissing off all those conservative Francophobes. But keep in mind that any country is bound to have at least a few sores on its body politic. Take, for example, last week’s news that French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, while visiting China, stated that France has no issue with China’s recent law warning Taiwan not to declare independence. So, Monsieur Raffarin, if China invades Taiwan and imposes a brutal imperial regime, which is that? Liberté, Egalité, or Fraternité?

The Prime Minister didn’t fly all the way to China just to greenlight a pre-emptive declaration of war; he’s also pushing the international community to lift the Chinese arms embargo. This is most likely part of a plan to get French companies more access to the booming Chinese consumer market, and France certainly isn’t the only one currying favor with the Chinese Communist Party for this reason. Still, I can’t help but think that France is crossing a dangerous line, not to mention making China policy the only area in which Rupert Murdoch acts with a higher moral accountability than the Prime Minister of France. Sure, Murdoch’s media empire downplays China’s human rights abuses so he can sell cable subscriptions to the sino-bourgeoisie, but as appalling as that is, it’s only words. Murdoch isn’t the one trying to sell weapons to the Chinese—the very weapons that they could plausibly use, in a few months or years, to massacre the Taiwanese.

Last December, I had the good fortune to travel to Taiwan to speak at their Regeneration of Digital Art symposium. I spent six days there, eating copious amounts of Chinese food, being shuttled around by attentive grad students, and getting into great (English) conversations with many different people. You can’t learn much about a culture in six days, of course. But one thing I did notice is that the threat of invasion by mainland China is a shadow that looms over any discussion of Taiwanese politics and society. One of the Taiwanese newspapers was avidly following the progress of the U.S. missile defense program: When you’re 90 miles away from a nuclear power that considers you a renegade province, missile defense is more than a pointless boondoggle. And more than once, a conversation veered from the topic of Taiwanese democratic culture to the possibility of invasion by the People’s Republic of China. The line of thinking is, roughly, that the young people of Taiwan should be more politically involved, but the danger is that with their idealism they’ll demand independence, at which point the PRC will invade and kill everybody. Try building a functioning democracy and not obsessing about that. It’s like not thinking of an elephant.

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