23 November 2010

National Opt-Out Day: Civil Disobedience and National Security

Tomorrow has been designated as National Opt-Out Day by internet organizers who are encouraging Americans to refuse to submit to airport body scans. Those who participate will be within their rights, so long as they then submit to a pat-down by security officials. However, airport and TSA officials are warning that a mass opt-out could drastically slow down transportation on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year. The organizers of the Opt-Out disclaim any intention to disrupt transportation, and advise sympathizers to consider the possibility of delays before making their protest.

While the action contemplated for tomorrow is legal, I feel justified in describing it as civil disobedience because it questions both the necessity and propriety of the body scans. A majority of Americans in recent polls have acquiesced to body scans, accepting them as a national-security necessity, but many others find both the scans and the pat-downs to be intrusive violations of privacy, dignity and modesty. The scans are objected to because they record a naked image of each passenger; further objections have been raised over the amount of radiation passengers are subjected to. Pat-downs have been controversial as well, though their intrusiveness or painfulness may be a matter of individual technique.

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be a partisan or ideological agenda behind the planned protest. Some opinion makers have tried to exploit widespread outrage over perceived violations or humiliations; Charles Krauthammer, for instance, has blamed our general discomfiture as the result of a "politically correct" decision not to "profile" young Muslim males. I haven't noticed more calls for profiling, however. Americans' conspiratorial imaginations may work in the TSA's favor this time, since I suspect that most of us have accepted the premise that al-Qaeda has been trying to recruit terrorists who don't fit the neocons' preferred terrorist profile. More often, I've seen legitimate questioning of why children whose parents haven't been pulled out of line sometimes end up subjected to pat-downs. Nonpartisan paranoia and technophobia have largely fueled the "Don't Touch My Junk" movement, a modern counterpart to the Founders' "Don't Tread on Me" war cry. If anything, it's disappointing that relatively few Americans question the why of body scans and pat downs. That may be because they still buy the argument that terrorism is essentially an act of aggression against America motivated by the terrorists' innate hate for our freedom. It would be more interesting, and maybe more encouraging, if the current outrage spurred more people to question whether our alleged national interests in Afghanistan and the Middle East are worth the manhandling and processing Americans are put through as part of the War on Terror.