Am I the only person struck by the Orwellian weirdness of calling a grope-down an “enhanced” pat-down? The term seems to originate with the TSA. Their pusillanimous shill, “Blogger Bob” at the official TSA blog, ran a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” back on August 27. The language is theirs. (Weirdly but typically, in that post Bob never defined what the “enhancements” would entail. Now we know.)
Has anyone else made the connection between “enhanced” pat-downs and “enhanced” interrogation techniques? I haven’t seen anything on the terminological connection, neither in the mainstream media nor the blogs I follow. My husband and I each independently saw a connection. What do you think?
While chipping away at different facets of the TSA debacle, I’ve been haunted by bigger questions – ones much harder to answer than how safe the scanners are or whether the grope-downs constitute “sexual assault.” These are existential questions for the United States, for democracy, for our basic decency and humanity: How did we come to this pass? How is it possible for my country to commit acts that in any other context would be deemed sexual assault? How can Americans allow our government to commit them in our name?
We – the American people – haven’t just become more fearful since 9/11. We’ve become more callous, too. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo, we have tolerated torture that promises to “keep us safe.” No wonder a silent majority appears prepared to tolerate virtual strip-searches and government-sponsored groping. As Adam Serwer argues eloquently at TAPPED, many of those livid at the TSA abuses supported the PATRIOT Act and every subsequent grotesquerie aimed at Muslims and foreigners. These folks are only angry now that we’re feeling the reach – nay, the grab – of the security state on our own flesh.
I have to wonder if Abu Ghraib, in particular, lowered the bar for sexual abuse. The differences between the sexualized torment inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the new TSA procedures are important, of course. President Bush never publicly affirmed the Abu Ghraib abuses, while President Obama has publicly defended the TSA. The torment inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners was considerably more severe, including the outright rape of children, according to Seymour Hersh, who first broke the scandal.
However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Abu Ghraib coarsened us – that it put sexual abuse on the menu of techniques routinely employed by the security state. Sure, Lynndie England went to jail for her deeds, but her commanding general, Janis Karpinski, was merely relieved of her duties. Donald Rumsfeld, who Karpinski said authorized the abuses (and I believe her), lives the comfortable life of a retired war criminal. Rummie’s former boss is currently profiting handsomely from a partially-plagiarized memoir.
At the same time, it’s probably an oversimplification to say the new TSA policies are a direct descendant of Abu Ghraib. It seems equally likely that they sprang from the same source – a willingness to allow democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights to be abrogated after 9/11.
The post-9/11 climate, in turn, has deeper roots. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “Islamophobia” at my university. One speaker said that the hatreds that took hold after 9/11 violate America’s greatest values. Another speaker contended that our paranoid responses are very American indeed, reaching back to the xenophobia of the so-called Progressive Era and beyond.
They were both right.
The United States has a tradition of championing justice and equality, liberty and privacy. It also has a tradition of racism, inequality, xenophobia, and willingness to jettison the rule of law in wartime. Unfortunately the gap between the two traditions has often been a gulf between ideals (the first tradition) and practice (the second).
At that forum, we watched an ABC Primetime segment that tested Americans’ willingness to stand up for a Muslim woman being refused service in a shop:
If you tear up at the clip – well, I did too. And then I asked myself why civil courage should seem so exceptional and so deeply touching.
I’m beginning to think the public outcry over naked body scanners and grope-downs might just force a change at the TSA. Today, John Pistole finally admitted that the agency went too far in one case where a screener reached inside a woman’s underwear. As these stories multiply, the pressure on Pistole, Napolitano, and Obama will continue to mount.
Let’s say we win the struggle against TSA abuses. Let’s say they agree to keep their hands off our genitals and to reserve the naked-body scanners only for cases where there’s probable cause. What next? What would it take to dismantle the out-of-control security state that spies on its own citizens and kills and tortures brown people overseas, all in the name of freedom? Which tradition will we choose – that of liberty and justice for all, or safety at any price? As a nation, will we continue to be the six people who perpetuated abuse or the twenty-two who stood by silently? Or will we have the courage to become the thirteen who spoke up?