About a month ago, one of my colleagues was describing to me a forthcoming trip, when he paused and reflected, “I’m still not sure whether I want to be groped or zapped.” It is a question many Americans have contemplated in recent weeks, “groping,” of course, being the instantly-infamous “enhanced pat downs” airport travelers can opt for if they refuse a “zapping,” the new X-ray backscatter or millimeter-wave machines that provide TSA shockingly clear body images. Both types of machine are known as Advanced Imaging Technology [AIT].
A few days ago I traveled internationally and had some opportunities to experience these notorious new security measures. Because AIT, according to Congressional testimony by Columbia University biophysicist David Brenner, delivers radiation at a rate of “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry,” I leaned toward being groped rather than zapped. The TSA has been lying about other things, after all, proclaiming that the AIT machines don’t record or store images when in fact they can and sometimes do.
Exhausted after entering customs in Detroit after a fourteen hour flight, however, I was in no mood to have my privates jostled, so I opted for a zapping. It seemed innocuous enough. I cleared my pockets, stood in the transparent cylinder, and raised my arms as the panels rotated and emitted a flash of light. Not even Aldous Huxley was imaginative enough to have predicted the scene. While I was in the cylinder awaiting the zap, I rolled my eyes at a skeptical woman who seconds earlier had flatly proclaimed to the agent, “I’m not getting in that thing.” She grinned at me, a favor I was able to return a minute later after I had gathered my belongings and passed her as she stood in an area designated for miscreants, a TSA agent’s hands down the back of her pants.
It was one of the few times I’ve shared a moment of solidarity with a stranger in the face of state power. Usually in airport security lines, I keep my face taut and my mouth shut, assuming that the majority of my fellow passengers, inundated with narratives about the terrorism committed by my kind, will take the side of the government and be all too happy to out me as a security threat. But on that day I felt comfortable expressing my displeasure, for nearly all my fellow passengers were also visibly displeased. This spontaneous solidarity is the only positive outcome of a paranoid government that seems determined to fly too close to the sun. One need only visit an airport to see just how weary most Americans are of this endless war on terror and the millions of tiny ways it arrests our freedom to be human.
There has been such an outcry among the American public against the TSA’s new procedures that it constitutes as much of a popular revolt as we are likely to see in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the opposition to AIT is misguided. Rather than questioning the foreign policy and curtailment of civil liberties with which AIT is in dialectic, numerous commentators have urged more efficient ways of monitoring travelers, such as racial profiling and better intelligence. Why should regular (read: white) Americans be so inconvenienced when everybody knows that it’s Arabs and Muslims who should be dealing with the extra security hassles? This reasoning is troublesome, but not just because of its implicit racism. There are no good ways for the state to arbitrarily police its citizens; when given the opportunity, governments always abuse their power. We should instead challenge the very ideas of terrorism, intervention, and security that facilitate corporate hegemony, from whose psychotic logic the need for AIT arises.
A particularly troublesome aspect of opposition to AIT is the widespread invocation of Israel as a counter-narrative to American airport protocol. Israel, which apparently has superhuman security acumen, is lionized as a responsible exemplar by those on the political left and right. According to the New York Times, Congressman John L. Mica (R-FL), decrying the new TSA regulations, “says the Transportation Security Administration should look at Israel, which uses early detection techniques at airports.” These “early detection techniques” are based on comprehensive racial and religious profiling and are not actually systematic, but arbitrary, often performed at the discretion of individual security personnel with no discernible consequences for the abuse of passengers.
In November, 2010, liberal television host Keith Olbermann interviewed former El Al director of security Isaac Yeffet. Leading into the interview segment, Olbermann asks, “Tonight, our number one story, why are we doing this? Why are we doing this and all of these other remarkably stupid and ineffective invasions of privacy when nations that have nearly perfect records against would be aviation terrorists do not? Nations like Israel?” One of Yeffet’s solutions to invasive security seems unlikely to improve the travel environment in airports: “First of all, we have to understand that people are waiting in line to go to the ticket counter. While they are waiting in line, this is an opportunity for us as security people to go in to interview every passenger.”
By turning to Israel as an example of more responsible and effective policing of airline travelers, commentators on both the political left and right do little to ameliorate state invasiveness. In fact, they are asking for a type of government interference that goes far beyond the same TSA security procedures they abhor. This is possible because most of the commentators that lionize Israeli security are actually perpetuating a venerable mythology, that of the world-weary and businesslike Israeli who has honed his craft into a science amid decades of terrorism.
The list of Israeli abuses of Palestinians, Americans, Arabs, Muslims, and even Jews at Ben Gurion International Airport and at border crossings is lengthy and mortifying. Those abuses include physical beatings, hours- and sometimes days-long waits, unjustified deportations, torture, intrusive and multiple interrogations, child abuse, and rectal and vaginal probes. In practice, Israel provides no protection of civil liberties to travelers; its security procedures are more accurately described as martial law. Israel’s spokespersons mythologize those procedures as democratic and pragmatic, but in actuality Israeli security is patently racist and belligerent, conceived of an obsession with terrorism that has permeated American discourses about safety, modernity, and national belonging.
The element of Israeli security of greatest concern to American commentators and to our understanding of the issue is racial profiling. While many Israelis such as Yeffet claim that Israeli officials do not profile travelers, according to the Washington Post “Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of Israel’s population, are regularly subjected to a more intensive questioning that goes beyond the routine queries, such as ‘Where did you just arrive from?’ and ‘Who packed your bags?’ They also are subjected to body and bag searches more frequently than Jewish passengers.” Israeli security officials and “terrorism experts” will admit only to looking for particular signs and behaviors in choosing who to single out for interrogation (or worse), but those signs and behaviors are distinctly racialized.
Passengers, for example, are often asked if they know, met with, or plan to meet with Arabs while in Israel; an affirmative response is considered suspicious. Passengers who are suspected or known to be Arab themselves are almost always subject to intense scrutiny, sometimes leading to the violent practices I highlighted above. In invoking Israel as an effective example for the TSA to follow, the majority of commentators are arguing that innocent Americans should not be inconvenienced when it is obvious that only those who fit a specific profile should be subject to extra scrutiny.
This profile is an invented cultural icon, but a powerful force in influencing public opinion. The profile is usually male and dark-skinned, often bearded and the bearer of a visibly “Muslim” name. Any supposed “Muslim” symbology—a Qu’ran, Arabic script, political garb or reading material—is worthy of extra scrutiny. Although anxiety over Arab-Muslim terrorism reifies the bearded male icon vis-à-vis the helpless, oppressed woman, Muslim women can trigger security concerns through the contested garment of the hijab. The hijab signifies Muslim devotion and thus ineluctably identifies the suspicious traveler, not only from a cultural standpoint but from the more critical standpoint of her devotion to Islamic pathology.
I use the term “racial profiling” because, even though we cannot ascribe any single racial characteristic to Muslims, Muslims have been racialized around specific images, the majority of them arising from the simulations of an invented Arab antagonist. It might appear that Israel and the United States perform religious profiling, but the identification of religion in the act of profiling would be meaningless without that religion being outfitted with a set of atavistic characteristics illuminative of a racial group. The more obvious of these characteristics include an innate disposition toward violence, a pathological culture, a tribal social structure, and an inability to coexist with democracy. The Muslim, then, assumes the fixed and observable traits of a distinct biological group predisposed to certain types of behavior.
We should also consider the profound violence of the same modernity glorified by both proponents and opponents of AIT as contradistinctive of the barbarity from which Western societies must be protected. The act of mandating strict and invasive security does not exist in a vacuum; it is a reactive process evolving from a self-perpetuating state violence. The anxieties inspiring the security craze are intimately connected to the anxieties over the destructiveness the state itself perpetrates. AIT is meant to ameliorate those anxieties, but airline security and foreign policy do not exist in separate spheres. The violence that accompanies Israeli and American foreign policy and the colonial histories of both nations are in dialectic with the pragmatic need to protect travelers from harm.
It is therefore stupid and dangerous to glorify Israel if our goal is to keep the government out of our pants. It’s a poor idea to turn to Israel for any sort of inspiration other than military brutality and settler colonization. Indeed, while we’re going through the trouble of contesting AIT, we ought to try to get rid of Zionism and American imperialism, as well.