Public outrage at the TSA’s new policies of sexually assaulting travelers in the name of “security” is growing by the day as new stories of horrific abuses emerge. Some of them come from fellow California netroots activists, some from famous entertainers, others from moms across the country.
These stories are all shockingly familiar to those stories of people who have suffered sexual assault or molestation in other circumstances – a sense of shame, then of shock, then of a growing awareness they have been violated. In this case, because it is an extremely powerful arm of the government that is committing the sexual assaults, it leads people to be silent about what has happened to them – a situation many people, women in particular, know all too well from other experiences our society rightly finds indefensible.
Then there are the stories of people who were going to unwittingly submit themselves to the extremely dangerous and unsafe full-body scan machines. When one woman at SFO was shown a letter from UCSF doctors pointing out the health risks from the x-rays the TSA machines use – and that the TSA refuses to disclose to the public that the machines use x-rays – one woman from Santa Clara, a cancer survivor whose doctor told her to avoid x-rays, opted out of the full-body scan. Of course, if you opt-out then you become subject to the sexual assault searches. In other words, the TSA is willing to violate people’s most basic rights and freedoms in order to get people to walk through a very unsafe machine that is only there because Michael Chertoff wanted to make some more money.
This situation should be something that progressive activists are all over. We see ourselves as the guardian of civil liberties and our rights against the overgrown security-industrial complex. We see ourselves as defenders of people who have been sexually assaulted, and vigorously oppose and denounce those who minimize or explain away that kind of behavior whenever it happens in other contexts. And we see ourselves as defenders of democratic rights in the face of attempts to force us to give them up at a whim.
Unfortunately, some progressives (like Kevin Drum) believe we shouldn’t pay attention to this issue at all. In recent days I’ve had several conversations with progressive folks on Twitter and Facebook who think the TSA issue is a waste of time, a diversion from more important matters.
Such views could not possibly be more wrong. We on the left do not have the luxury of having every American be as informed on the issues as we are. If we did, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in as a country. Instead we have to use teachable moments like this to show an outraged public that this isn’t just about TSA procedures – but that it is about deeper problems that show the need for thorough progressive solutions that can advance a progressive agenda.
As I put it to one friend, if people are window-shopping at the store of civil liberties, you don’t denounce them and say “why don’t you care about these other issues?” – you invite them inside and make a sale on a broader range of concerns, from Guantanamo Bay abuses to the need to prosecute torturers.
The right-wing is VERY good at doing this. They know very well how to act when the public is suddenly paying attention – they drive the public toward right-wing solutions. As Dave Weigel noted, the right-wing is all over this issue, using it to advance their ideological agenda. Byron York’s interview with Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who will head the House Transportation Committee in January, is revealing:
Did you know that the nation’s airports are not required to have Transportation Security Administration screeners checking passengers at security checkpoints? The 2001 law creating the TSA gave airports the right to opt out of the TSA program in favor of private screeners after a two-year period. Now, with the TSA engulfed in controversy and hated by millions of weary and sometimes humiliated travelers, Rep. John Mica, the Republican who will soon be chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is reminding airports that they have a choice.
Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening. “When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”
In other words, Mica is proposing privatization of the TSA. It’s a long-held right-wing goal and Mica is skilled at knowing how to use a moment of public outrage to push his agenda. Mica is also more directly honest about what the TSA is doing than most other Democrats I’ve heard talking about the issue:
Mica sees TSA’s new “naked scanner” machines and groping, grossly invasive passenger pat-downs as just part of a larger problem. TSA, he says, is relying more on passenger humiliation than on practices that are proven staples of airport security.
Then there is Fox News, which called the whole issue “Obama’s Hand in Your Crotch” – not missing an opportunity to bash the president.
Good organizing involves seizing opportunities to educate an otherwise distracted and alienated public as to why your agenda is the best – and the only – solution to a problem they suddenly care very much about. Rather than dismissing this issue or mocking those who care about it, progressives need to seize the moment to offer our own explanation and solutions.
Here’s my stab at it: the TSA has been empowered to do this by the ridiculous and absurd “permanent war on terror” rhetoric that’s been used by Republicans over the last 9 years to support their agenda. The TSA and the Dept. of Homeland Security felt empowered to do this because nobody stopped other abuses of rights, whether it was torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay or whether it was the long history of overlooking rights in US prisons in the name of fighting crime. No government agency should have the right to sexually assault a member of the public; our 4th Amendment rights matter deeply. We can find better ways to balance security and freedoms, such as ensuring that the TSA can only perform intensive searches on people they have some legitimate reason to suspect are a threat.
We need to do this not just because the public is upset and not just because the right is already mobilizing on it. If we are to rebuild public trust in government as an institution that can help protect and extend prosperity, as something that should be used for good and not something inherently flawed that should be junked for an even less accountable private sector, we have to show the public that we will make sure government doesn’t abuse its powers. Progressives have an obligation to fight the TSA on this.
Thankfully, some progressive groups are already doing this. FireDogLake is circulating an “Investigate the TSA” petition. The ACLU has been fighting the TSA for years over their abusive practices, and has been outspoken about the pat-down search abuses. It’s good to see progressives getting involved in defending our rights, our freedoms, and our bodies.
Hell, if nothing else, this makes a great case for high speed rail!