Peepshow scanners may not catch terrorists, but who says they’re supposed to?

By Brian Doherty

That the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has saved a single life is unproven and doubtful. But it did something good for the country last fall by provoking a long overdue reaction against bureaucratic bullying.

The TSA has been rolling out more of its “Advanced Imaging Technology” scanners, with the goal of having 1,000 in service by the end of 2011, covering around half of the security lanes at our nation’s airports. These machines demand more of us than just striding through, as with the traditional metal detector. That can be done with some semblance of dignity.

The new scanners that stand between us and our right to travel freely—a right hallowed in Western tradition back to Magna Carta, where movement in and out of the realm was protected even for foreigners—require us to stop and spread our limbs submissively. We are then doused with X-rays or millimeter waves to produce a bizarrely inhuman yet laid-bare image for a bureaucrat to contemplate, ogle, or blankly run his tired eyes over. Anyone who refuses to submit to this electromagnetic strip search is required by TSA policy to undergo a very through pawing and pat down, including between the legs.

Yet shortly before Thanksgiving, one brave American, John Tyner, became a national hero for recording himself resisting a TSA agent’s attempts to molest him at the San Diego airport, an incident that popularized the slogan “don’t touch my junk!” The idea that the TSA was ramping up its assaults on our dignity and privacy for no discernable benefit swept the country. The push back culminated in organized calls for everyone to opt out of the scans on the day before Thanksgiving—overcome the system by overloading it.

The new technologies are undignified and meant to be. The illusion of choice surrounding their use is intended to funnel us into an even more undignified situation. Be exposed electronically in full, or physically molested, or go back home. These are unprecedented demands on Americans moving through the theoretically free world, not some penitentiary or asylum.

But the principles behind the TSA’s new strategies are very old. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is being built in miniature, but with an even wider angle of view. While the 19th-century utilitarian philosopher Bentham dreamed of a system that could keep watch at all times over particular classes in need of surveillance—he was thinking of prisoners, students, and workhouse denizens—the American Panopticon gazes upon any air traveler without regard to criminal background or mental history.

A second philosopher who saw this coming was Michel Foucault. What Foucault wrote about the insane asylum’s effect upon its inmates applies eerily and equally well to what the TSA does to everyone who passes through its screen: “The problem is to impose, in a universal form, a morality that will prevail from within upon those who are strangers to it.” Sadly, given the number of Americans who reacted to November’s anti-TSA furor with a hearty “who cares if you have to be watched or grabbed in order to travel? The experts say it’s needed,” the TSA appears to have succeeded in constructing a new morality.

These bureaucratic procedures quickly assume all the privileges of reality, as if they are an external force that no American in his right mind should waste time fighting. It is disconcerting to me how often I find people who lived through those days forgetting that as recently as 1995 one could get on a plane anonymously, without showing any papers, beyond a ticket, to anyone.

But it is heartening that the rituals of resistance are in play against the latest power-grab. Some pranksterish Americans have taken to selling undergarments with the Fourth Amendment printed on them in metallic ink that will supposedly show up clearly over your image on the new scanners. Meanwhile stories of petty-tyrannical behavior from TSA agents stream forth. The TSA itself knows its agents are not to be relied on to understand their own rules. Its website assures us that we have the right to turn the Panopticon back on the state, in our own small way, by filming at airport checkpoints in a non-intrusive way. But the site also tells us to be aware we are likely to be harassed for doing so anyway.

The institutional players are acting their parts in the resistance rituals. The ACLU has collected over 900 stories about TSA abuses from aggrieved Americans. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit challenging the Fourth Amendment constitutionality of the scans and patdowns. Rep. Ron Paul has offered a bill mandating that TSA agents should have no legal immunity for whatever assaults they commit on unwilling Americans in the course of their work. But congressional oversight of the TSA is meaningless—already deputized by Congress to do whatever it decides is necessary, TSA need not care what we think of it.

The TSA has created the perfect enemy for any bureaucracy: one that can never be defeated, that could be anyone, and that creates excuses to funnel money to favored interests until the end of time. It does not matter that the Government Accountability Office and various security and imaging experts have noted that the new scanners might not have detected the “underpants bomber” whose attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas 2009 provided the pretext for the new measures. The scanners produce images sharp enough to rob Americans of their dignity, but not sufficiently clear to detect flat, irregularly shaped explosives worn close to the body, according to Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson’s study “An evaluation of airport X-ray backscatter units based on image characteristics” in the Journal of Transportation Security.

The revolt against TSA by Tyner and other citizens fed up with the surveillance state gave a few of us a momentary feeling of real security—grounded in an enduring American spirit of dignity and resistance to tyranny. But that proved to be as illusory as the safety offered by the agency’s blind yet all-seeing machines.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This Is Burning Man, Radicals for Capitalism, and Gun Control on Trial.

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