Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fear and Dignity

In view of the recent failed terrorist attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit, the authorities in Netherlands have announced that from now on everybody who wants to board a US-bound airplane will have to go through a scanner that shows the contours of your naked body to the customs officers. The US supported this decision.

It is curious to observe to what lengths people are ready to go in order to convince themselves that inflicting yet another inconvenience, humiliation or debasement upon themselves is going to make them safe. For years we have been taking off our shoes, going through explosive-testing cameras, enduring endless lines in the airports, and undergoing searches and questioning. And none of it works. I don't know how many times I, a peaceful graduate student and later college professor, have been taken aside into a special room for suspicious people and questioned for lengthy periods of time when trying to cross the US-Canada border. I got so used to it that now I always arrive at the airport 3 hours early to make myself available for questioning which is surely coming. None of these measures, however, prevented the most recent terrorist - who was on a list of suspicious individuals - from getting on board with explosives.

Now we are supposed to parade naked in front of the customs officers in futile hopes that this new humiliation will finally buy us some peace of mind. It won't, though. All that is awaiting us as a next step in this frantic rush to appease our fear is a prison-type cavity search. The fear is growing, and soon enough nothing short of having a customs officer with his nose up your anus will make us feel secure enough.

Understanding the consequences of certain events, seeing similarities, and experiencing fear as a result is a very human thing to feel. So we attempt to strip ourselves of our humanity by stripping obediently in front of the customs officers in hopes that if we manage to play the role of cattle convincingly, nobody will want to hurt us. 'Look what we allow to be done to us,' we seem to say to the terrorists. 'Look how readily we give up our comfort, our privacy, our self-respect. See how sad and pathetic we are? Why would you want to waste your time hurting such a sorry bunch of sheep?'

It doesn't help, though. Dehumanizing ourselves is not a way to go.


bleh said...

Yes. The new strategies never make us safer; they only make us more pliable to authority, more willing to do what they tell us.

Anonymous said...

Vernor Vinge thinks that the inevitable result of a technological society is a inescapable police state.

I am beginning to think he is correct.


Kola Tubosun said...

You're right Clarissa.

And this reminds me of an episode in Boston Legal where Denny Crane - a hardworking proprietor of a prestigious law firm was put on a no-fly list because his name rhymed with that of someone who was a terrorist. In the course of the trial, we found that there were other people who were NOT on the no-fly list precisely because they were known terrorists and the Homeland Security folks felt that they needed to keep them off the list so that the folks would be relaxed enough to get on the plane, and perhaps be arrested.


I take off my shoes every time I board a plane, yet this happened. Does it really take a genius to know that the next airplane plot will focus on the lapses in current security arrangements no matter how tight it is? It's either that someone is not thinking straight, or some people are so desperate to have a state where they have their finger on the goings-on in everyone's lives. Either way, I'm not looking forward to 20 years from now.