Recently, on a trip to Disneyland in California, I was confronted with a strange reality: security lines, or more accurately, because their was no organization, security clusters. Ok, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that a place that regularly sees tens of thousands a day go through its gates, would have some security measures. But, the last time I was at Disneyland- still post 9/11- in 2005, they didn’t exist and it didn’t occur to me that at the “happiest place on earth” I’d find airport style security.
I already had security on my mind, having flown from New York to Los Angeles the day before. I’m used to the security lines at JFK- long. I’m used to the lack of human affect displayed by TSA agents, something some would argue is necessary for the job. I’m also resigned to having to undress either by taking off my shoes and belt and sweater and/or by having a person in an unseen room view scans of my naked body. So be it; the cost of terror.
Well, first of all there is a lot to debate around the definitions of terror and security, around methods for discerning “those with bad intent”, around civil liberties and American values and ideals. I won’t get into all of it here, but let’s say for the sake of argument I agree with the common understanding of what terror, terrorism and tourists are. I don’t think it’s a concept that is so easily whittled down to a sentence or a simple agreed set of definitions, but for now let’s say I do.
My father was a pilot and, growing up in the 1970’s, we often went to the airport to wave at my dad’s plane as it backed away from the gate. We would follow it through the gate area, looking out the windows, until it finally took off. There was nothing between us and the gate where his plane originated before take-off. Now, in the 1960’s and 1970’s the world wasn’t devoid of fears and terror. Hijacking was a pretty popular activity then. People were hijacking planes for all kinds of reasons- money, politics, sport. And, yet, no personally invasive security measures. Actually, none of any kind.
Sometime in the 1980’s they erected scanning machines and we were asked to place our purses and wallets on the belt and walk through a screening gate that would detect metal. Many did this as we went to see of loved ones or meet them at their arrival gates. Eventually, and this was prior to 9/11, no one who wasn’t a ticket passenger could get past the security gauntlet. Now, not only can’t you get past security without a ticket/boarding pass, in some airports, like JFK, you can’t get to the ticket counter without proof of a ticket for that day, that you are suppose to print on your home computer or have accessible on your personal devices.
Anyone remember when you could just walk up to the ticket counter and buy a ticket for the next flight out? Shudder at the thought now. Even if the price is no object, buying a same-day ticket is a sure way to draw attention at the security area. You are more likely to get, what we call in my family, “the full meal deal”, i.e. taken to a separate area, patted down, your belongings pawed through and swabs taken of everything you own in order to detect explosives.
Some would say this all necessary in order to ferret out the bad guys among us. But, no one has offered another possible way this could be done besides the one that assumes everyone is guilty, treats everyone as if they are hardened prisoners who deserve no human intercourse, and create a class of policing that is dangerously close to devolving into a nazi-like state.
What does it do to our humanity? What does it do to the humanity of the TSA agent who must shut down, in the face of her work everyday, those very emotions that make human interaction, something so necessary to the vital operations of a civil society, possible? The sociologist, Ervin Goffman, defined Total Institutions as those arenas in social life where individuals are stripped of their socialization and re-socialized to the institution. Examples included the military, boarding schools, mental institutions, and prisons, among others. The key insight for this issue of security is that anywhere people gather and particularly in airports (why airports specifically? Don’t we have to ask that?) total institutionalization is at work. We acquiesce to the security measures we very recently, in terms of our overall history, have become socialized to believe are necessary. While there was an outcry against body scanners, it didn’t stop people from traveling by air. In fact, people, instead, just acclimated or adapted as they say in evolutionary theory. Similarly, now we don’t seem to find it outrageous that to go spend a day in a fantasy place like Disneyland, we first must submit to searches and scans and pat downs. It seems almost like a science-fiction novel or movie, some dystopic future. “Family decides to chuck reality for a few days, but must first check in for their daily personal search.” Margaret Atwood might have written that. It strikes me that it’s dangerously close to some totalitarian regimes we find so distasteful. Don’t let the parallelism of total institution and totalitarianism slide past your consciousness. They both contain the word “total” because there is something totalizing about losing your freedoms.
The only thing I will say about Disney is that their security personnel were warm and friendly and not robotic automatons. No one has blown up a Disney franchise yet. So, maybe, TSA could get together with Disney and come up with a more human approach that would at least make us all, TSA personnel and travelers, feel like we have some human dignity and compassion. In the end, security isn’t going to stop terrorism, but compassion might.