Monday, November 22, 2010

Patted Down or Felt Up?

First came the "Shoe Bomber," so the Transportation Security Administration forced all airline passengers to remove their footwear. Then, the "Underwear Bomber" led to full body scans and invasive, personal searches. I shudder to think of the TSA's response when someone invents the exploding suppository, and they will. Then, perhaps when MeeMaw gets anally probed before her turkey-day flight by a guy that, only last week, worked at the post office, this nation will get serious about rapid rail transit. If the additional charges for baggage and the insipid rules concerning carry-on luggage were not infuriating enough, these new "pat down" procedures have already sparked a citizen's revolt, begun by the passenger who threatened a TSA agent with arrest if, "(you) touch my junk." The viral effect has been similar to the "Don't taze me, Bro" protester's anthem for police restraint.

Already, the TSA has responded to the public push-back by modifying some of their more grotesque practices. Thanks to a Memphis-based pilot who filed a lawsuit, the agency has halted the practice of molesting uniformed pilots before a flight, instead referring to them as "trusted partners." I guess if a pilot can be trusted to fly the plane, he can also be trusted to land it at the scheduled destination. Scanning a pilot for explosives or a nail file seems redundant if he intends to put it down in a shopping mall. Passengers are not so fortunate.  The New York Times editorialized, "There are far too many reports of TSA agents groping passengers, using male agents to search female passengers, mocking passengers and disdaining complaints." While women who "opted-out" of the full naked body scanning complained of near sexual assault by zealous civil servants, right-wing religious leaders have raised the alarm about gay agents administering the enhanced frisking. I heard a rumor that if you declare a gender preference at the rubdown checkpoint, you may be given a masseuse consistent with your sexual leanings, i.e., a female agent would be assigned to pat-down a gay man. So, what would I have to lose by claiming to be homosexual?  If somebody's going to squeeze my lemon, I would prefer it be by a woman. When she's done, I could ask for a "happy landing."

We have been reassured that the new porno scanners are designed to delete images as soon as they are examined, yet hundreds of  leaked body scans have already been circulated on the internet. Women have reason to be squeamish ever since embattled TSA head John S. Pistole told The New York Times that the scanners can detect tampons and sanitary napkins, which may cause the need for further, personal interaction with agents. Another recent complainant was a women who, after undergoing a mastectomy, had her prosthetic breast squeezed and manipulated by a clueless examiner. News footage of the aggressive handling of a sobbing, three-year-old girl whose teddy bear triggered an alarm helped to solidify public opinion that this entire TSA operation is a mindless, time-wasting, charade designed to give the illusion of security while trampling constitutional protections, including that one about "unreasonable searches and seizures." There is nothing in the "enhanced" version of airport security any more effective than the old metal detector, wand,  and baggage exam, which served as deterrents instead of a choking and degrading spectacle. What's needed are computerized file sharing techniques between competing airlines for the "No-fly lists," and "Watch lists." Had these been in place, the Underpants Bomber would never have made it onto a plane to begin with and we wouldn't be dealing with strange men gliding their hands up our inner thighs. At least the TSA is consistent. They are always prepared to respond to yesterday's threat.

It's not like there aren't other experts to consult. I once flew El Al Airlines from New York to Israel and was subjected to their thorough but non-intrusive security examination. All passengers were required to be in a sequestered airline waiting room several hours in advance where their luggage was screened and checked. Each passenger was then required to sit across the table from an airline security specialist that looked like an ex-Mossad agent and answer questions. When the agent asked why I was travelling to Israel, my inner imp wanted to say, "Because the Lord has called me back to the Holy Land to redeem my people," but he looked like someone who didn't appreciate airport levity. Although merely a tourist with nothing to hide, my inquisitor's pointed questions and piercing gaze were so unnerving, by the end of the interview I was ready to confess to masterminding the Entebbe hijacking. The Israeli government has found that a direct look in the eye is better than a ham-handed body search. To those who say, "Israel is a tiny country with only one airline," I suggest each domestic carrier hire one trained profiler for each of the TSA rent-a-cops that will become unnecessary.

A passenger uprising has already begun with internet pages ranging from horror stories in the grope line to the laments of TSA agents who don't wish to spend every day feeling the butt-cheeks of disgruntled, same-sex airline patrons. One activist group declared Nov. 24 as "Opt-Out Day," where participants refuse the naked scan in order to overwhelm the touchy-feely committee. Other air passengers plan a post-Thanksgiving, silent protest. With security agents at waist-level pawing at private parts, bloated travellers will seek revenge by unleashing a massive, low-lying fog of residual green beans and candied yams. It will be sort of like Saddam and the Kurds. With all concerned equally revulsed, it can truly be a Black Friday for everybody, and we can try to bring some reason back into the process. Everyone wants to be assured of their safety, but these absurd intrusions only show that nine years after the attacks on the Twin Towers, we are still being held hostage by the 9/11 hijackers. On the other hand, given the history of the pilgrims, what could be more American than to have a smiling stranger say, "Happy Thanksgiving. Now assume the position."

Monday, November 08, 2010

Burning Down The House

Back in the 90s, I bought my first house. It was in a shady section of east Memphis called Normandy Meadows, a nicely kept neighborhood consisting mainly of modest but well-constructed homes built in the 50s. I was fortunate to find a house owned by a single family who had collected forty years worth of receipts, proving the house was well maintained. After years of semi-reclusive apartment dwelling, I was so delighted with my backyard that I got a boxer dog and named him Floyd. My expectations for my new home were so high, I figured that if I began with a puppy, I could ultimately work my way up to having interactions with human beings once again; and if so, they could have a place to come and hang out. I looked forward to the joys and responsibilities of home ownership despite the retro kitchen, unchanged since the Elvis era.

It seemed no sooner had I taken occupancy, however, before I began having plumbing problems, like bathroom flooding and eternally dripping faucets. The plumber said the water pipes were rigged in a way that condensation from the air conditioner drained from the attic into the back of the porcelain throne. He used plastic piping to reroute the water across the attic floor and down the side of the house and installed a drip pan that needed periodic attention. A week later, I saw water spots and cracks in the living room ceiling and called an air-conditioning company to make an estimate on a home visit. The AC repairman couldn't believe that the unit was installed in the attic and imagined it had been like that for forty years. He placed plastic sheets beneath the pipes and informed me that soon, I was going to have to replace the entire system. My dreams of domestic tranquility were further shaken when a crack in the ceiling opened up as I scrambled for a bucket to contain the steady leak. It was early morning when Floyd and I awoke to a sudden crash from the other room that sounded like a meteor hit the roof. The entire ceiling in the living room had caved in covering the floor with soggy sheet rock and a substance that resembled oatmeal. The repairman just shook his head and said it probably took years for the ceiling to become so saturated.

I now had a new home that needed major repairs, so I became enraged at the house and decided to punish it. I called an air conditioning company whose main business was selling screen doors, and they didn't even believe in AC. I told them the stupid thing was broken and to go up there and do whatever it took to fix it, sort of like going to an auto mechanic and saying, "I'm not sure what the problem is, but spare no expense correcting it." Then I found the most fly-by-night contractors possible and they set about the business of disassembling my home to clear the attic of heavy equipment. When everyone was finished, the heat and air didn't work, holes in the ceiling revealed waterlogged crossbeams, and all the floors were warped from standing water. But I taught that damn house a lesson never to disappoint me again. When my anger had been sated, however, it was unlivable and I had to torch the place. As an American major said after the burning of a Vietnamese hamlet; "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Of course, I'm lying about that last paragraph. I did what any sensible homeowner would; I put the place in order and sold it. My point is, intentionally damaging the house you live in over some repairable internal defects, is the same logic voters just used in attempting to put our other house in order: the House of Representatives. It was a creaking machine before, but rather than oil the wheels of government to turn smoothly, the American people chose to throw a whole bunch of monkey-wrenches, collectively known as the Tea Party, into the gears. If the electorate's intention was to slow the Obama agenda, they may have succeeded in bringing it to a screeching halt. Future Speaker, Orange John Boehner has already announced his first legislative priority is to repeal Obamacare. Big mistake. Not only would the Senate refuse to consider such a measure, the president would veto it if they did. The electoral red sea of 2010 was about jobs and unemployment. Everyone has a friend or family member who has been dismissed, downsized, cut back, or cut loose, and people are fearful. If the new congress decides to waste time re-hashing a year's worth of jabbering over health insurance reform instead of instituting a jobs program, they will face a blow-back that would give Newt Gingrich whiplash.

It will be interesting to see how the Tea Party newcomers get along with established Republicans. The country is still in a time of crisis and in desperate need of legislative compromise, but the Tea Party enters Congress with a mission; destroy Obama. If they could only snap out of it and see that Obama is more like Eisenhower than FDR, they might try to work with him for the common good. But don't expect any New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built public works and parks, or the Works Progress Administration, which hired the unemployed to build roads and bridges, (literally paving the way for the Eisenhower interstate system), coming out of this Congress. Their job is to slow down the workings of government and create enough political potholes for Obama to be defeated in 2012. The president either has a strategy, or he's a slow learner. He continues to extend an olive branch to the opposition and they continue to beat him with it. Speaker-elect Boehner often refers to himself as a "Reagan Republican." Unfortunately, he no longer means the former president, but his wife, Nancy, whose simple philosophy has encapsulated an entire political movement into three words; "Just Say No."