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.

"London Hurts"

Via BoingBoing: A group of Americans, feeling sentimental about London in the aftermath of the bombings, started a LiveJournal group called London Hurts, only to be invaded by bonafide Londoners who flooded the place with their own sarcasm. So the image postings went from this:

to this:

I’ve never even been to London, myself, but I appreciate the backlash nonetheless. I found it fairly horrifying to watch New York be claimed by the rest of the U.S. after the September 11th attacks. The sentiment seemed well-intended but inappropriately intimate, like if somebody you barely know asks too many questions at your grandfather’s funeral. And most people who moved to New York from elsewhere in America moved there for a reason, after all.

The “We’re all New Yorkers now” sentiment wouldn’t have been so grating if the Americans didn’t then go on to act typically American. After the memorial candles went out, we Americans bombed Iraqi civilians because we thought they were members of Al Queda, ignored torture of foreign prisoners because somebody has to think of the children, and then re-elected an incurious President because his opponent seemed too French. Hey, if you’ve never been out of the country and the only news you consume is your local TV news reporting on the location of white women, you’re not a New Yorker.

So considering where the sympathy’s coming from, Londoners are probably right to be suspect. Take Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, who on the day of the bombings said “I think that works to our advantage, in the Western world’s advantage, for people to experience something like this together …” Nothing bolsters popular support for a misguided foreign policy like its abject failure, right?

The thing about Americans is, we really mean well, but we’re astoundingly simple-minded about the complexity of the world. We imagine ourselves to be like Star Trek’s Federation, but just as often end up acting like Godzilla. And some of our concern is just for Londoners as an abstraction, not actually as people living different lives in different places who might actually have different opinions. If London were to take a page from Madrid, and decide that there were better ways to fight terror than by indiscriminately killing brown people in another country, how much would the Americans feel for the London victims then? Back before the bombs started dropping in Iraq, a quarter-million New Yorkers took to the streets against it. I didn’t hear any pro-war hysterical Americans claiming to be New Yorkers then.