Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The insecurity state: investment in humiliation

No kidding. A sworn peace officer upheld the law and the constitution, and it made the news. It made the news mainly because he did it in an airport, and by a consensus that nobody actually remembers agreeing to, constitutions and laws have generally stopped at airport doors for a long time now. Well before 9/11 serious people told us that questioning or laughing at the very serious and important security people at airports, and their very serious and important security measures, would result, and should result, in severe legal consequences. They called making jokes about bombs in airport lines "stupid", referring to the sad history of hundred-ton airplanes brought down by humour. As George Orwell pointed out in his description of the goose-step, a government and society able to prohibit or restrict laughter has moved its whole society a long way toward totalitarianism.

And then two impudent kids distributing leaflets with advice about dealing with security checkpoints at American airports, and a sheriff's deputy walked into the Albany New York airport. As President Obama put it in another context, that sounds like the start of a joke. But what happened next is no joke: the serious and important edifice of aviation security collided head on with the concept of limited government codified in the United States constitution, and the constitution won. One decent law officer simply repeated, over and over, to an obviously hostile government functionary, that people handing out flyers and filming had a constitutional right to do so and hadn't broken any laws.

So what made the airport official in question so hostile? Why try to block some leaflets? I try to beware of large political explanations for individual actions. Occam's razor of politics tells us to never attribute anything to conspiracy if you can adequately explain it by stupidity, and I would add that I never attribute to ideology anything I can attribute to an individual attitude. At the same time, the nature of airport screening did not come about by accident, and to some extent it doesn't matter if the system has a lot of thought behind it or not. We have evolved an airport security system that strips us of our rights, our dignity, and our ability to choose. Since we don't like that but we have a limited ability to resist it, we compensate by telling ourselves that airport security matters, that it must keep us safe, that hoops the authorities line up for us to jump through must have some justification.

Anyone who has experienced a neurosis that involves magical thinking knows the process. If you convince yourself you will die if you don't wash your hands before eating, the more elaborate and difficult your hand-washing ritual gets, the more you believe that ritual has kept you safe. In the same way, travelers who have submitted to the humiliations of airport screening have an investment in the insecurity state. One way to defeat magical thinking is to force it to submit to the test of reality. One police officer insists that law and constitution, not magic, applies even in airports. One action will not bring down the insecurity state, but one person can make a difference.
Good job, officer.

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