Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TSA's Government-Mandated Sexual Humiliation

Over at the Guardian I once again address the TSA matter; regular readers of this-here blog will recognize several themes from my anti-TSA posts these last few weeks, including the ACLU database of traveler complaints.

I notice that in this my latest column, many among the commentariat take umbrage at my use of the word "thug" in the following context: "But flying includes the legal obligation I submit to having my genitalia groped by some TSA thug wearing the same latex gloves already shoved down nine dozen other strangers' underwear."

I make no apology for that, nor for where I later wrote of TSA agents "sniffing my crotch like the dog[s] that [they] are." The fact that agents are just following orders, just doing their jobs or just paying their bills doesn't justify their mass mistreatment of others. And once this treatment is accepted as normal in airports, it will spread to other forms of mass transit as well.

I remain simultaneously appalled and unimpressed by the stalwart protests in favor of the poor downtrodden TSA. Yes, the TSA agents stroking women's labia and squeezing men's testicles are human beings. So too was the TSA agent who spilled an ostomy bag's contents over a bladder cancer survivor. And the agent who lifted a woman's blouse in full view of other passengers, and joked about it. In all of history, every state internal-security agency trained to view its own citizens as potential enemies, and treat them accordingly, has been composed entirely of human beings. And they remain Milgram-experiment-perfect examples of just how loathsome human nature can be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Predictions For 2011: We'll Wish The Mayans Were Right About 2012

A friend of mine asked for concrete 2011 predictions, and I had only two to offer: one, that the housing situation would grow worse -- from the perspective of dimwits who believe "Problem is, houses don't cost enough money to make their sellers rich" -- because more adjustable-rate mortgages are due to reset in 2011 (recall that it was a mass re-setting of ARMs in 2007 that kicked off our current economic woes).

Second prediction: that TSA procedures will grow even more intrusive. My friend responded "Yeah, and water will be ... wet," a fair piece of snark. But in all seriousness, my prediction demonstrates an actual worsening of the status quo. Last month, when I wrote that anti-TSA column for the Guardian, I initially pitched it as a story about the "National We Won't Fly" protest which was to take place the day before Thanksgiving. I was glad my editor chose instead to run it a week and a day before Thanksgiving because -- seriously -- I thought the sexual-assault patdowns would be rescinded after the uproar, similar to how last year's post-Christmas "spend the last hour of a flight in your seat, lap and hands empty and visible at all times" policy was rescinded after only a day. Yes -- as late as last month, I was optimistic enough to believe "If my editor holds the gropedown piece until the day before Thanksgiving, it might be outdated by then!"

That TSA prediction turned out wrong, so wrong. I fear my latest one will not. Now, even airline and travel executives -- i.e., bona-fide Rich People with capital-c Connections, enough to demand and get a private audience with the head bureaucrat of Homeland Security -- find their complaints to Janet Napolitano and DHS completely ignored. That scares me. Government's ignoring the small fry is to be expected, unless the small fry gather into a large enough voting bloc. But now government's even ignoring the rich lobbyists, when their wishes go against Homeland Security's wishlist.

I also wrote about the bathroom bans for the Guardian -- though I wrote in the past tense, as the policy had already been rescinded by the time the column ran last January -- and I noted:
Fortunately, the new regulations included several draconian limits on international business travelers: no working on a laptop or listening to music, since in-cabin electronics weren't allowed on flights into the US. The Boxing Day bans didn't last long. From a civil-liberties perspective, we Americans were lucky that latest TSA chicanery inflicted inconvenience upon wealthy people with political clout.
Now, even that's no longer enough. God help us all, especially when an atheist like me is reduced to hoping thus.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas To The Human Genetic Piles Calling Themselves TSA Agents

I overslept yesterday but that’s okay; it was Christmas Eve, the day Santa visits my household shortly after sundown. So, I figured, all those hours I slept in this morning mean less hours to kill before unwrapping presents.

I wandered through the apartment in a happy pre-coffee haze, singing bits of half-forgotten holiday carols and scat-singing the rest: C’mon it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with youuu, shabba-tabba-te-dooo.

Should’ve left well enough alone. Should’ve stayed off-line. But no –I checked a couple of news websites instead and read something which must’ve shown on my face, for my boyfriend asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I snapped in the same tone of voice most people use to say “Fuck you and everyone you love.” Then I quickly added, in a much softer tone, “I’m not a violent person but I swear, every time I read about the latest TSA travesty I want to punch something.”

If you were fool enough to try flying yesterday, then you might have learned the hard way what I learned about online: TSA has decided that Thermos bottles and other insulated food containers are the latest Potentially Dangerous Terrorist Threats. (Incidentally, I had arranged for Santa to bring my beloved, among other things, a miniature cooler/insulated lunch box. I only thought to improve his lunch-at-work situation; how was I to know this could threaten the security of our once-great republic?)

As the news reported:
Transportation Security Administration officials issued an alert Thursday for agents to take a closer look at empty insulated drink containers at security checkpoints, citing them as potential instruments in a terror tactic, the Associated Press reports.

The agency noted it will respond to growing concerns with additional security measures. The fear is that terrorists can use the metal containers to conceal explosives, according to the AP.

Despite the warning, however, authorities stress that there has not been any intelligence about a specific threat involving the drink-toting bottles. The closer inspection is simply an additional safety check to ensure safe holiday travels, they said, and the TSA is "carefully monitoring information related to terrorist tactics and working with our international partners to share information."

The added measures will include X-ray screenings, checks for any trace of explosives and physical inspections, but passengers will still be permitted to carry insultated beverage containers onto flights.

The ban on liquids more than 3.4 ounces is also still in effect.
There’s a ban on liquids of more than 3.4 ounces? Wow, TSA must have mellowed since I last flew, in 2006: back then, Americans were only allowed to have three ounces of liquid on a flight, and any bottle holding 3.4 ounces was officially Too Dangerous To Fly. What made TSA relent on that extra four-tenths of an ounce? The same process TSA uses to determine all its policies, no doubt: propose a somber hypothesis subject to rigorous peer review by a select group of Israeli intelligence experts, Nobel-winning physicists and other high-IQ Wise Scientific Minds.

Ha ha ha ha ha. What really happened was, a bunch of TSA flunkies sat around smoking much better marijuana than ordinary Americans can usually get – confiscation powers over rich-person travelers has its perks – and then one of them coughed and said, “Whoooaa, duuude, y’know if a te’rr’ist had a Thermos bottle he could maybe, like, do stuff with it.” Then his morbidly obese colleague snorted a fat line of coke off her three-inch-long fake fingernail and shouted with a sudden burst of energy: “Ohmigod ohmigod you’re right you’re right YOUARESOFUCKINGRIGHT we gotta watch for the Thermos bottles gotta watch them gotta watch them GOTTA WATCH THEM NOW!!”

And they laughed, and they patted themselves on the back for their valuable contributions to national security.

The thuggish behavior now standard in American airports is creeping to other forms of mass transit, too. Washington DC kicked off the holiday season by starting “random checks” of Metro passengers’ baggage on the Winter Solstice. New York City has already done that to subway passengers for a few years now. And whenever the latest invasion of our privacy is announced, the government PR agents calling themselves journalists find some dimwit to give a Man On The Street quote: “Oh, yes, it’s worth it so the government can keep us safe.”

No, dammit, the government doesn’t do this to keep us safe; they do this instead of things that would keep us safe! TSA’s so busy feeling your underwear, they can’t find the actual bombs that test agents smuggle through security checkpoints; so busy measuring how many hundredths of an ounce of shampoo you’ve got, they can’t bother checking what’s in a plane’s cargo hold.

This Christmas I learned some friends of mine are moving out of my area, to parts of the country so far away I’ll never have time to drive there. Ordinarily I would say “Hooray! They got new jobs, and I’m finally prosperous enough to afford plane fare for vacations.” But not now. I can buy a plane ticket to visit people I care about, sure; what I can’t do is quietly submit to letting some worthless waste of human genetic material molest me first. I can’t even accept that I – a citizen of what still calls itself “a free country” – am actually expected to do that.

Dehumanizing people – denying their right to feel basic human emotions like “outrage at the thought of a stranger fondling their private parts” – that’s what totalitarian countries do, right? Not mine. All my life I heard – I believed – I should be grateful to live in the United States of by-God America, Land of the Free, Government of by and for The People, Bastion of Liberty and Human Rights … but I’ll never see my friends again unless the TSA disbands, or I become so utterly debased that it doesn’t bother me to have my vacation bookended by random thugs feeling me up with dirty latex gloves.

According to educational advertisements sponsored by various anti-drug task forces, there are ways I could easily reach that level of debasement, where impersonal sexual assault became ordinary, unremarkable everyday business for me. Too bad it’s too late for me to ask “Dear Santa, please bring me whatever supplies I’d need to become a crystal meth addict.” That would make it easier for me to perform my presumptive duties as a modern American, a generation after the Cold War ended and we all thought concepts like Freedom and Human Rights would rule the future.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pat Robertson on Mary Jane: Too Little, Too Late

As a child in southeastern Virginia, I'd rush home after school each day to watch old Tex Avery cartoons or the bowdlerized Star Blazers saga on what was then local independent UHF channel 27. Like most indie channels in the days when cable TV was still relatively rare, Channel 27's programming consisted almost entirely of re-runs: movies and cartoons older than my parents, a few contemporary sitcoms gone into syndication -- anything whose broadcasting rights could be bought cheap. Unlike most indie channels, 27 also had a few hours' worth of original prime-time programming each week, most notably a boring grown-up church show called The 700 Club. Channel 27, out of Virginia Beach, was owned by Pat Robertson and eventually grew to become the Christian Broadcasting Network, netting Robertson hundreds of millions of dollars peddling his peculiar version of Christianity.

My mother had a church friend who bragged about being one of the original 700 donors for whom the 700 Club is named. So when I grew up, and looked at what passed for contemporary America in the 1990s, I cringed extra-hard to contemplate Robertson's creepy right-wing Christian Coalition and the theocracy they'd establish if they could. My friends and I just wanted to watch cartoons, my mother's friend just wanted to make Jesus happy, and look what a monstrous thing we'd actually supported!

Still, that turned out all right. The Christian Coalition's heyday passed, and though America's gone a terrifying distance down the wrong track, "safety" rather than "God's will" turned out to be the excuse used to chip away at our freedoms.

Robertson deserves credit for one thing: for all the nasty claims he made in the name of defeating Satan, not once did he ever say government thugs should fondle people's genitalia in airports to protect them from Satanic forces. And now, in his old age, Robertson has mellowed further, going so far as to say marijuana should be decriminalized.

My optimistic friends take this as a good sign. "When even extreme right-wingers like Pat Robertson see the War on Drugs as a failure, then stick a fork in it; it's done," they say. "When pot prohibition loses Pat Robertson, pot prohibition loses. Period."

Had Robertson said this ten or so years ago, I'd've shared my friends' optimism. But nowadays, our political class doesn't even pay lip service to the notion of listening to what the people want. Ordinary travelers and rich airline executives with capital-C connections both complain about the TSA molestation policy; TSA doesn't care. Americans overwhelmingly opposed the bailouts, the stimulus plans, the healthcare-reform boondoggle; politicos passed them regardless.

Kudos to Robertson for seeing the light, but he saw it too late. He should've said something back when politicians were still willing to listen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Trolls Get The Holiday Spirit

Brief vacation from the appalling news on the American civil liberties front: over at his Gravity Lens blog, my beloved Jeff has posted Roadside Epiphanies, his annual holiday story. If trolls really did catch the Christmas spirit in such fashion, the world would be a better place.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

America Lacks Jurisdiction Over Julian Assange

If the US government succeeds in its attempts to prosecute Julian Assange over the Wikileaks disclosures, it's game over for American freedom. Even the Soviets at their most vile never claimed jurisdiction over every person on the planet.

What can a concerned American citizen do about her government's misbehavior? I'm reduced to hoping the governments of Sweden and Britian grow some balls, or at least bone up on modern history enough to figure out "The Cold War's been over a generation and more, Communist domination is no longer a threat, and our national security no longer requires us to grovel cravenly at America's feet."

Not that I'm holding my breath. It's possible Assange violated some Swedish sex law on Swedish soil, though the details sound a tad fishy; if it's true, he's liable to face whatever penalties Swedish authorities usually mete out, possibly involving time in a Swedish prison.

America has no legitimate involvement in any of this, and no legitimate right to prosecute Assange for his Wikileaks disclosures -- Assange is not a US citizen, never swore any oaths to keep US government secrets, and is not subject to American jurisdiction when he's in Europe or Australia or wherever.

If my government really hates the thought of sex crimes committed against innocents, it should spend less time worrying about Assange and more time focusing on things Assange helped uncover, like the American contractors who procured prepubescent little boys to serve as sex toys at Pashtun warlord parties. Instead, my government is ignoring that to focus on the people who uncovered it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Another Little Detail In The Sovietization Of America

One summer in the late 90s I read all of Carl Sagan's books to date after finding hardcover copies of them for a dollar apiece in a secondhand shop. He often explored the theme "scientific progress is more likely in cultures of openness rather than secrecy." Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s, the then-new invention of photocopy machines meant that for the first time ever, ordinary people (as opposed to "those rich enough to afford expensive printing presses") could effectively become publishers, quickly and effortlessly printing countless copies of a given document rather than typing or writing copies out by hand.

That's a good thing for ordinary people, and scientists, and anyone wishing to share knowledge or ideas. Including political subversives, which is why totalitarian governments like the Soviets banned photocopy machines for all but the elite. Sagan wrote how, when he met with his Soviet scientific colleagues to discuss apolitical matters of astrophysics, he knew the ban on photocopy machines -- what the ban implied about the Soviet government's attitude regarding information and control -- meant the Soviet system was ultimately doomed to fall behind.

Turned out the Soviet system was plain doomed, though Sagan couldn't have known that when he wrote those books in the 1970s and '80s. And now it's a quarter-century later, and photocopy machines are venerable old-fashioned technology. The US government has no Soviet-style problem with old copymaking tech, but the newest generation of technology is something else entirely: in the hope of preventing another Wikileaks-style data breach from the top-secret server accessible to over three million authorized Americans, the military has banned on threat of court-martial all "removable media" around sensitive computers: no DVDs, no thumb drives, nothing that might possibly allow computer-to-computer information spreading.

I'm sure banning modern info-sharing technology will be just as useful to the US government today as banning photocopiers was to the Soviet government in Sagan's time.

Hindsight's Always 20/20

It's ironic (or maybe not) that the higher the tax rates are in a given state or municipality, the greater the likelihood it will claim "financial hardship" and seek to raise revenues still higher. And so it goes in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports a proposed "crash tax" on emergency services the Fire Department of New York is set to implement: if you're involved in an accident to which firefighters must respond, regardless of fault, you'll be billed: car fire or accident with injury, $490. Car fire without injury, $415. Any vehicle accident without injury, $365. The city expects to raise $1 million the first year.

This despite New Yorkers already paying some of the highest individual tax rates in America. Of course, a good chunk of that proposed $1 million government profit will vanish in the inevitable lawsuit brought by an innocent motorist who refuses to pay a fine after her car gets hit by a speeding on-duty cop who didn't have his lights or siren on.

Too little, too late, FDNY. If you wanted to make real money off your scheme you should've implemented it the week before 9/11. I bet a lot of motorists crashed their cars after they were distracted by the horrors they saw in the skyline.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

I couldn't find the quote in an online search, but recall reading one political writer -- I want to say a British contemporary of Orwell -- who noted that even in the most oppressive totalitarian societies you'll find plenty of mundane ordinary life, and happy families going out for Sunday picnics. It's an understandable, even common, reaction -- Marjane Satrapi, in her Persepolis novels about the Iranian Islamic revolution and its aftermath, noted that after the revolutionaries consolidated their grip on power, those who survived the liquidations mostly kept their heads down and grabbed what personal happiness they could.

And where "personal happiness" is concerned I really have nothing to complain about, especially not at the start of the holiday season. So all last week I busied myself with cozy domestic tasks: decorating the tree, buying and hiding gifts, filling boxes for the canned food drive. I did this knowing that airports across the country have jackboots sexually assaulting travelers and drawing TSA salaries for the privilege. I did this while the manufactured outrage my media colleagues demonstrate over the unfolding Wikileaks story demonstrates their continued willingness to gaslight America and write apologias for those who violated every principle America once stood for. I only paused long enough to write a brief Guardian column about the Republican-manufactured art scandal at the Smithsonian, but even then my usual outrage mellowed into a disinterested "Yeah, they're hypocrites. Whatever."

Brooding over government misdeeds, ranting over government misdeeds -- none of it does any good. Especially not during the holidays. Why not grab what happiness I can? Why be such a cynic? Focus on the silver lining rather than the cloud.

Like the latest Wikileaks revelation: apparently American contractors pimped out some prepubescent little boys to serve as sex toys at Pashtun warlord parties. Certainly there are criticisms one might levy against such practices, but with my new glass-half-full optimism I recognize that from a realpolitik perspective this is actually one of the smartest moves we've made since the war started. Face it: America's "win hearts and minds" campaign clearly isn't working. The best we can hope for now is to win over a few powerful dicks.
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