Friday, July 11, 2008

Bush’s Legacy

Patrick Smith, who writes the Ask the Pilot column at Salon.com, confronts the lunacy that is the TSA.

You would think, nearly seven years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, that TSA would have gotten its act together. Not just tactically, but functionally. Take a look at the typical checkpoint. There are people yelling, bags falling, trash bins overflowing with water bottles. There’s nowhere to stand, nowhere to move. It’s a jury-rigged circus.

But we should hardly be surprised, perhaps, at the Frankenstein monster now before us. Propped up by a culture of fear, TSA has become a bureaucracy with too much power and little accountability. It almost makes you wonder if the Department of Homeland Security made a conscious decision to present bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance as the public face of TSA, hoping that people would then raise enough of a fuss that it could be turned over to the likes of Halliburton. (Funny, how despite this administration’s eagerness to outsource anything and everything, it’s kept its governmental talons wrapped snugly around TSA.)

Except there is no fuss. Serious protest has been all but nil. The airlines, biggest losers in all of this, remain strangely quiet. More and more people are choosing not to fly, and checkpoint hassles are one of the reasons. Yet the industry appears to have little concern while an out-of-control agency delays and aggravates its customers.

And it’s going to get worse, not better. As I’m sure you’ve heard, TSA is deploying body scanners that can see through clothing. It is also implementing gate-side luggage checks similar to those that were common in the days following Sept. 11. After proceeding through the main screening checkpoint, selected passengers will be enjoying a second one just before boarding.

To scare away complainers, TSA is also deploying signs at airports around the country. “Interfering with security personnel or procedures in any manner,” the signs read, “is prohibited.”

That “in any manner” bit is an eyebrow raiser. Does that include questioning or challenging TSA’s methods? Are guards not answerable to those they’re supposedly protecting, and who are paying their salaries? How about a sign that cuts to the chase: “Don’t question us, just do as you’re told.”

On a recent trip, I got stopped for a “pat-down” search, probably because I had too much change in my pocket. As I stood there, my arms outstretched like some airport concourse depiction of a crucifixion in jeans and a polo shirt, and as the TSA inspector touched me everywhere — and I mean everywhere (and no, he was not my type) — I wanted to ask him if he felt as humiliated as I did. But I didn’t, because I was sure that I would be questioned sternly by some supervisor who was certain that by asking that kind of question, I was some kind of subversive daring to challenge their domain. So I stood there quietly, saying nothing, wondering if the inspector, with his latex gloves, noticed that in spite of the fact that it was 6:30 in the morning, I was already sweating from the exertion of schlepping through MIA with a roll-on suitcase and a lap-top carrying case and ten minutes of standing in line between an elderly gentleman on his way to the Bahamas and a family of five, each laden down with the maximum number of carry-ons, bound for somewhere where the passports have green covers (the youngest child kept dropping his). He silently concluded the inspection and waved me on with a terse, “You’re free to go.” I didn’t know whether or not to say anything, so I erred on the side of caution, bit back my smart-ass comment that I was holding in reserve — “Was it as good for you as it was for me?” — gathered my scattered belongings, and went to find a place to sit down to put my shoes back on.

To be fair, I have always been courteous to the TSA people. I know they have an odious job and they get paid very little compared to what they are tasked to do and the agita they cause by their assigned duties. Only rarely have I seen the intransigent bureaucrats who seem to get off on their power trip of humiliating people just because they can, and when I spot them — not hard to do by their swagger and their barking orders — I avoid them for fear of me saying something that will get me on some list so that the next time I go through their Klingon-like rite of ascension, I will be noticed.

And this will forever be the legacy of the administration of George W. Bush; not that we survived the attacks of September 11, 2001 and rightfully defeated and destroyed the evil that caused it, but that we became a nation once again of compliant subjects, giving in without a fight to these assaults on our persons, our property, and our dignity, all in the name of some nebulous vision of “freedom.” We have seen this before in our history, and it is a shameful legacy: Salem; the Alien and Sedition Act; the virulent backlash during World War I against pacifism; the internment of the Japanese during World War II; the Hollywood blacklist and the witch-trials yet again in grainy black-and-white by Sen. McCarthy; the paranoid “silent majority” and enemies list of Richard Nixon; and now we have the ignominy of standing in line in airports like Muscovites lining up for bread. All because a cave-dwelling lunatic knows that sending out a grainy VHS tape will get the desired result.

A cynic will say that this kind of cowering compliance by the population is exactly the desired result, not just of the terrorists but of the Bush administration. This is what they have counted on to maintain control: tell the populace that they are the ones who know best; only they know the true depths of the conspirators against us, and if you don’t trust them to do the job, there is something suspicious about you, not them and their unerring insight to the mind of the terrorists. And they know it works. The lines snake through the airports without complaint, and the Senate passes a law that retroactively approves of illegal behavior by the administration and their telecom abettors. The willing Wormtongues of the right wing sing the praises of the all-knowing president and demonize the patriotism of anyone who would dare to speak out against them.

That will be the legacy of George W. Bush; that he scared the crap out of us and we became a nation ruled by rent-a-cops and color-coded alerts. He may be proud of it, but it will be our everlasting shame.