Saturday, November 20, 2010

Suspicious Packages: Liberals, Libertarians and the TSA -or- "Don't Touch My Junk"

Friday Charles Krauthammer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Don't Touch My Junk."

Um, okay.

Krauthammer was responding to the recent uproar over the new, aggressive Transportation Security Administration procedures, which include a full-body scan that renders an image of the traveler's naked body or, alternately, a thorough full-body pat down. Very thorough. As in a stranger's hands on your genitals-and-not-in-a-good-way thorough. Perhaps predictably people have begun to freak out over this. Including John Tyner, a San Diego man who refused the scan or the pat down announcing that he would call the police if they "touched [his] junk." All of which he captured on his iphone and posted to You Tube. Krauthammer writes,

...everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. Nowhere do more people meekly acquiesce to more useless inconvenience and needless indignity for less purpose. Wizened seniors strain to untie their shoes; beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants; 3-year-olds scream while being searched insanely for explosives - when everyone, everyone, knows that none of these people is a threat to anyone... But we must not bring that up. We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety - 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling - when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

This is a dozen kinds of racist and wrong, but entirely within Krauthammer's character and the spirit of his appalling discourse. So, in a sad way, unsurprising. Nevertheless, The American Prospect's Adam Serwer responded to Krauthammer in his own Washington Post op ed titled "Touch His Junk" writing,

Racial profiling is no more statistically accurate than those random searches conservatives always complain about. Thousands of Muslims travel on airplanes every day, and an infinitesimal number actually turn out to be dangerous. But the argument here is pretty clear -- the problem isn't that the violation of privacy isn't worth an unknown gain in security. It's that the TSA should be frisking "Nigerian nutjobs" instead of grandma. Conservatives like Krauthammer aren't angry that the TSA is infringing on individual liberty, just that it's infringing on their individual liberty.

Of course Serwer is right, but something about his response bothered me and I couldn't quite articulate it until I read Avon Snarksdale's supplement to his argument, titled "This Type of Ish Happens Every Day", at Post Bourgie (and subsequently quoted at length by Serwer at The American Prospect). Snarksdale writes,

It should be pointed out that for plenty of people of color in the nation’s inner cities, these kind of uncomfortable, vaguely legal searches — with the stated intent of finding people carrying guns and drugs — are essentially de rigueur... In one four-block section of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the NYPD made 52,000 stops over a four-year period, which averaged out to about one stop for every resident in the area each year. And it’s no more efficient than the profiling Adam decries: for all that scrutiny and all those stops over four years, the police in Brownsville recovered just 25 guns, and less than 1 percent of all those people who were stopped — and questioned and patted down and humiliated as they went about their lives — were ever arrested. (All of the personal info taken during the stops, however, was entered into a citywide database.)

I cosign the spirit of Snarksdale's critique and I completely agree with his analysis of street stops. But his essay (and Serwer’s before it) stops well short of addressing a) the unprecedented legal shift away from civil rights initiated by the Bush Administration and perpetuated under Obama and b) that Arabs and Muslims–regardless of their race–are the disproportionate target of this new legislation. In other words, it is now perfectly legal in the United States for me to be removed from my apartment for writing this blog post and imprisoned indefinitely with no legal right to counsel. And further, for me to be tortured physically, psychologically and sexually at the discretion of my captors, who would suffer no consequences for those acts even if they came to light. That is NOT an “every day” scenario. That is a new, radical abrogation of civil rights and Arabs and Muslims are its unambiguous focus.

Charles Krauthammer is arguing against the TSA’s invasive security theatre in favor of profiling Arabs and Muslims, an increasingly mainstream position. That the main refutation of this argument at Post Bourgie and at The American Prospect is “but it doesn’t work” does not fill me with confidence. So… what if it worked? Would it be okay then? Every couple of years or so when some conservative nutbag advocates fencing off ghettos or forcing women who receive welfare benefits to submit to state-enforced birth control we don’t click our tongues and say “but it wouldn’t work.” We say, “Fuck you for suggesting that we legally dismantle civil rights for your racist political agenda.” So would it kill these guys to take such an unambiguous, ethical stand against targeting Arabs and Muslims? The fact that in the space of two short posts we got from Charles Krauthammer calling for the profiling of Arabs and Muslims in a mainstream newspaper to a complete reframing of his arguments in terms of a Black-White racial dynamic profoundly disturbs me. How is it that Serwer and Snarksdale--putative Liberals-- managed to do what Krauthammer couldn't and made Arabs and Muslims disappear completely?

Snarksdale is quite right that the law is selectively applied to Black people–and that this is exponentially worse for poor Black people. And he is completely right that institutional racism goes down to the bone in US society. And a critique of the responses of old white guys like the pilot who was so shaken by his groping pat down that he refused to fly afterward using a racial lens is valuable and completely valid… But the selective application of civil rights (as in “random” police stops in Brownsville) is *not* the same as legally removing them entirely.

Which is a thing that has happened. Bush did that and Obama has done nothing to undo it.

So let’s be clear. Enduring a humiliating pat down is not the same thing as getting sodomized by a fluorescent light tube (which is another thing that has happened to Arabs and Muslims imprisoned in the “war on terror”). Do violations like that also happen to Black men in police custody? We know that they do. But we also know that when they happen they are completely illegal. Not so for Arabs and Muslims at Bagram, Gitmo, or any of the numerous Black Sites around the globe. When US soldiers screamed at the Arabs and Muslims who were collected almost entirely at random for imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo Bay “You are property of the US Military!” as they sodomized them, it was completely legal. That is a paradigm shift. Period.

Now is it a slippery slope from one to the other? You bet. But that isn’t really what Snarksdale is arguing (If he were believe me, I’d be thrilled) Instead he is saying it “happens every day” to Black folks and so, in some sense, it is not a big deal that it is happening to folks like me. This is a grotesque sentiment that I have unfortunately heard over and over from Black Liberals. (Who have also made the same point about Latinos in the ongoing immigration debate, to similar effect.) But here’s the thing guys: Our experiences are different, mine are not a weak metaphor for yours.

Don't get me wrong, I love Post Bourgie. That I felt free to post a frank response to Snarksdale's essay is a testament to my respect for the intelligence of that community. So if I sound angry it’s only because I AM angry. Posts like Snarksdale's that argue But This Has Always Happened To Black People Anyway are fundamentally dishonest if they do not acknowledge the material circumstances of life for Arabs and Muslims under the USA Patriot Act. There is a fantastic, intersectional analysis of US racism and orientalism/Islamophobia waiting to be written. But that analysis cannot be made if we begin from assumptions like those upon which his essay is based.

Between you, me and the CIA operatives monitoring my internet activity, a better analogy than institutional racism to the USA Patriot Act and its ultimate effects would be Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933, which legally expanded the reach and powers of the government to selectively apply constitutional rights and protections… And we all (I hope) know how that ended up. Still, if Liberal bloggers wrote about Arabs and Muslims by relating our situation to what Black folks endure under institutionalized racism I think that would be great. But if they only want to use us to make a point about their experiences– delegitimizing ours in the process–then I wish they'd do us a favor and please don’t.

Dealing with the Krauthammers of the world, who are not in short supply, is exhausting enough. But, as an Arab, the lack of will to speak out for me among the US Left is at least as frightening as the open hatred among the Right. As far as flying is concerned I have already made the decision to go for the pat down over the scan. They want to feel for a suspicious package? Okay then. We'll see who blinks first.

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