Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Power, Freedom and Christmas

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

So begins and ends the role of the most powerful person on the planet in the greatest story ever told. Taken from the Gospel of Luke, these words set the context in which Jesus Christ came to be born in Bethlehem: An important man had a grand idea.

As Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus ruled supreme. Across the globe, his name was known and his word was obeyed. Yet at Christmas, as people celebrate the seminal union of creation and Creator, he rates only passing mention. Joseph and Mary, traveling to the City of David in accordance with Augustus’ orders, took refuge in a rude shelter so she could give birth to her child. As “all the world” moved to comply with an emperor’s proclamation, who would have imagined the destiny of humankind was laying in a manger?

This is one of the many welcome messages of Christmas: Man is not in control. Our ambitions do not rule the universe – and what an encouraging thought that is. God’s ways are not our ways, and though this sometimes brings suffering, as prayers seem unanswered and we struggle through the agony of a broken world, it also brings hope. Look at the world of men and wonder who would want them to have the final word. Many things that matter most to us – power, prestige, wealth and renown – do not reckon in God’s estimation. Even if, like Augustus, we achieve the pinnacle in each of these, we can still be confounded and forgotten.

The story of Christmas reminds us where true power dwells. It is in love, and humility, and evinced through God’s use of the weak to shame the strong. That means every one of us has a chance, and it means we all matter.

Each of us comes to Christmas – and every day of the year – with hopes and fears, clinging with joy or pain to those things we think are important. To be sure, some of these are important to God, as well. We may sense when our desires match those of the divine, as we are designed to appreciate the power of gentleness, the feeling of selfless love, and the warmth of a servant’s heart. But there are other concerns we carry around, priorities of men but pittances to God, and Christmas gives us a chance to set them down. Saint Paul offers simple counsel and encouragement to do just that: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”

There is liberation to be had by admitting we are not in command. As we recognize the limits of human power, we concede that our understanding of God is inchoate. This frees us from prejudices and serves to reinforce the Christmas message. For example, those of us who believe in the divinity of Jesus and the salvation obtained through his birth, death and resurrection must recognize that our appreciation of these events is incomplete. Indeed, the Gospels themselves give varying descriptions of Christ’s nativity and life, reminding us that we are reading the Word of God, rendered by imperfect people.

This means that as arguments over religion and belief swirl around December 25 and persist throughout the year, we can take peace in recognizing that none of us has all the answers. Whether we are great or small, Christmas invites us to embrace the precious simplicity pronounced by the angels two millennia ago: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men."

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The TSA Singers

Good Lord, they’re singing.

This column has been sharply critical of the TSA and its invasive screening procedures for American air passengers. Monitoring the TSA’s public responses to concerns raised by people across the country, one notices an unsettling selectiveness. In a chipper, useless hybrid of corporate communications and government-speak, the TSA responds to those matters it thinks it can manage, ignoring the major problems with its new system.

In case you’ve missed the last couple of months, the TSA has been ramping up its regime of full-body, naked scans of air travelers, complemented by intense pat-downs that amount to government-sanctioned sexual assault. Reports of abuse have been rampant, including the grotesque targeting of female travelers by male TSA officers, and questions about privacy, power, and how these procedures can possibly jibe with Americans’ Constitutional rights.

It was rightly to be hoped that as we move into the Christmas travel season, and as opposition to their vulgar policies grows, the TSA would remedy – or at least acknowledge – these glaring flaws.

Instead, we find they are singing Christmas carols. Yes, the TSA has returned to the headlines as a choir of its officers sings to travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.

TSA supervisor and tenor Ernie Perez says he hopes to put a “positive face” on airport security, adding, “We’ve been taking a lot of heat for what we do.”

If I may be of some help here, Ernie, that’s because what you do is really, really wrong. This Christmastime, millions of Americans who want to be reunited with their families will be forced to run a groin-grabbing gauntlet erected by you and your colleagues. Your “positive face” doesn’t enter into it.

How many Americans have seen their holiday cheer darkened by anxiety, knowing that they, or their loved ones, will be subject to government-ordered nude photos and/or physical violation by TSA officers before their reunion can take place?

Perhaps the TSA singers hope to alleviate some of that anxiety by belting out a few holiday favorites, but here’s an even better move: Stop taking naked pictures of people and grabbing their intimate regions. It’s not much of a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but these are the times in which we live.

If, as the TSA insists, their officers are Americans like anyone else, understanding the concerns of the flying public, maybe they should stop singing and start protesting this twisted system. Why have we not seen that? Are TSA spokespeople so thoroughly committed to defending the indefensible, and are their ogling officers enjoying their new powers too much?

Perhaps, as their bizarrely cheerful public pronouncements suggest, the TSA folks actually feel they are winning this debate. But I doubt it. As employees, whether they work in communications or at airport gates, they must know that what they are doing is dead wrong, and a disgraceful violation of people’s dignity.

At least one TSA officer has had the sand to speak out and say as much. “I truly feel that it is morally and ethically wrong to do it,” an agent in Pittsburgh told CBS. “This does not make flying safer. It’s just taking away American citizens’ rights.” He noted that those who are most often singled out for extra scrutiny are seniors, lamenting, “Just the looks on their faces, some of them, the fear.”

So again, why has the TSA not made changes? Do they suppose this controversy will simply blow over? Again, I am doubtful.

An issue on which Charles Krauthammer, the ACLU, Ann Coulter, David Corn, Kathleen Parker, Jeff Jacoby and Alan Colmes all agree is one that has legs. Simply put, the TSA cannot win this fight with the American people and their Constitution.

In defense of their new rules, the TSA continues to wheel out a dopey, months-old poll, taken before Americans realized the detail of the naked scans, the vulgarity of the new pat-down procedures, or the capricious power of airport officers, showing widespread support for “full-body x-rays,” presented as a binary choice with “ethnic profiling.” But as the country’s mood shifts, and anger mounts, the TSA keeps humming along, calling us “customers” and acting as though we’re all on the same side.

The TSA is losing in the court of public opinion and, one can reasonably hope, they will lose some or all of the legal challenges being brought against them.

One of the many things we Americans do well is sue each other. It would be optimal for our national security officials to recognize the error of their ways on their own but, if a court order is what’s required to stop this madness, so be it.

But back to the TSA choir. If you want to give a gift to the American people, you can stop grabbing their groins and photographing them nude. This Christmas, TSA, just do the right thing.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If You See Something, Say Something

“If you see something, say something," our national security officials are fond of telling us. Indeed, the idea that ordinary citizens should be vigilant in spotting suspicious behavior was broadly encouraged long before this handy slogan was popularized. In the days after 9/11, as the anthrax scare ramped up, President George W. Bush was pressed by reporters as to just what sort of things folks should be looking for. The exhausted commander in chief replied, in a wordier iteration of the current motto, "If you find a person that you've never seen before getting in a crop duster that doesn't belong to you – report it.”

To be sure, civilians have been an important line of defense in the War on Terror since the brave passengers of Flight 93 took control of their aircraft, up through the citizen-led thwartings of attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid and would-be underwear-exploder Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. With these examples in mind, we can agree that any villain attempting to blow up a plane or train or shopping mall using identifiable methods will come in for an intergalactic beat-down from all decent persons within reach.

But what if the danger you see is something different and coming from an unexpected source? More pointedly, what if the threat you spot originates from the government itself? What to say then, and to whom do you say it?

One disgraceful example continues to stand out. To wit, there is no more egregious and obscene internal threat to our way of life than the TSA’s continued sexual violation of American travelers, in the form of full-body, naked scanners and invasive hand searches at the nation’s airports. Ostensibly in the name of stopping terrorism, our government is stripping us bare.

In response to mounting citizen protest, we hear, “Flying is a privilege, not a right.” What catchy nonsense. The government is not in place to dispense privileges, nor does it give us our rights. Moreover, on a practical level, the very idea that citizens of such a vast and various country as ours, who need to travel for work, family, and myriad other reasons, should simply stop flying because of repulsive rules established by government officials is bollocks on stilts.

But let’s revisit that concept of rights. The US Constitution was written by Americans, for Americans. The same is true of its first ten Amendments, which we call the Bill of Rights. Of particular relevance is the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from "unreasonable searches."

One wearies of those who insist we cannot understand the Constitution’s plain meaning without comprehension of case law, precedent, and a Yale-educated interlocutor to walk us through the document’s “living” nature. As we peruse the brilliant yet simple words of James Madison, they ask, “Who’re you gonna believe – a bunch of lawyers or your lying eyes?”

Simply put, if taking naked pictures of innocent travelers isn’t "unreasonable search," I should like to know what bloody well is.

And so we find ourselves at loggerheads with our own government, personified by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA Chief John Pistole. As these two insist on expanding this odious regime, one wonders if they have considered how it will end. Two possible scenarios come to mind:

In the first, Americans become inured to these searches, accepting personal violations as the price of peace. I picture Pistole and his staff, huddled in his secure, undisclosed office, sipping Champ-Ale and congratulating themselves on weathering a media storm, coming through it to find a docile populace, arms raised in surrender, naked in the scanning gaze of government.

In the second, the scanners go away. Decades from now, we see them and their images flash by in retrospectives of “the year that was,” a quick reminder of a time we allowed our leaders to go too far.

I believe and hope the latter scenario will prevail.

Again – “If you see something, say something.” I see something, alright. I see a government that sees too much. I see federal officials contravening the supreme law of this land and robbing citizens of their dignity. I see you, Secretary Napolitano and Mr. Pistole, and I'm saying something. I say it to those whose consent your government requires – the American people. I say do not let this stand, and don’t become used to this.

I have written a great deal about these searches because I truly believe we are at a turning point for America. I’ve stated that a nation that will not tell airport apparatchiks to keep their claws out of their crotch cannot vanquish al-Qaeda. But it’s more than that.

It is anathema to a free country that a leering government officer can point to your wife or daughter and force her to hold still for a naked photo. Yes, we have to defeat Islamist terrorists who wish to destroy us, but we will have nothing left to defend if we surrender our liberty.

Stay outraged, America, and stay free.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Janet Napolitano's Appalling Judgment

When she ascended to her position as Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano let it be known that the “War on Terror” was over. Instead, she decreed, America would conduct an “Overseas Contingency Operation,” in order to avert “man-caused disasters,” of the type we experienced on 9/11.

Ah yes, “man-caused disasters.” One is struck by the passive sense of the phrase, as though folks may have set out with the best of intentions, but things went awry. By that definition, what else might qualify as “man-caused disasters”? The Titanic? The Hindenburg? “Showgirls”?

As to just who might be responsible for such future “disasters,” Napolitano opined that “rightwing extremists,” including returning military veterans, were cause for concern.

Such a peculiar world view would be troubling in any Cabinet official, especially one charged with keeping the nation safe. But Napolitano’s notoriously poor judgment has been reinforced for all of us in recent days, as she continues to insist that in order to wage the homeland portion of our “Contingency Operation” and prevent “man-caused disaster” in the skies, TSA officers must take naked pictures and grab the groins of American air travelers.

Much has been made of whether these measures are a trial run for some Big Sister society, and Napolitano has asserted that the use of nude, full-body scanners should be expanded from airports to shopping malls, sporting events, and the like. But I am doubtful a larger agenda is in play for the same reason I understand this is a bad system. That is, conspiracies rarely happen because so few people are competent.

Even so, freedom can be crushed without coordinated effort. What’s more, if you lead people into temptation, they will follow.

We hear reports from all over the country, and those of us who travel have seen it: young women lined up at airports, having been selected by male TSA officers to go through full-body x-ray scanners. The TSA continues with its silly-bears about images being viewed in separate rooms and not being stored, but they are unable to address the probability that their men in uniform relish sending nude female photos to one another, and they miss the salient point: It is disgraceful and dangerous for a government to give male officers such sexual dominance over women.

Look, you don’t have to be B.F. Skinner to figure this one out: A mostly male force, empowered to take naked pictures of the females under their authority, will do so.

But back to Napolitano, and her fear about “rightwing” bringers of “disaster.” Suppose some conservative-minded fellow, perhaps with a military background, saves up to take his wife and daughter on a trip. And let us suppose that, as the family goes through security, male TSA officers take a liking to the women and, with the glances and gestures we are coming to recognize at our airports, single them out for naked scrutiny. Finally – and to be clear as a millimeter-wave scan, I am not calling for or condoning such action – let us suppose the pater familias takes umbrage with the officers and a violent incident ensues. Will Napolitano have been proven correct?

There is resonance to John Tyner’s now-famous phrase, “Don’t touch my junk.” But ogle my wife or touch my child, and the conversation takes on a whole new tone. Why are we creating this problem for ourselves?

Oh, right – in the name of security. This is the claim, even as the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly informed Congress that naked scanners would not have caught the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who in any case, boarded his plane in Amsterdam, and about whom the State Department had received prior warning from his own father.

So again, why is this system in place? Well, if you thought Islamist terror acts could be stopped by calling them, “man-caused disasters,” you might also be persuaded that nude photos of every American flier are worthwhile.

Napolitano is not a thorough person – aside from her inspection preferences for innocent civilians, of course. She railed against the recent Arizona immigration law, calling it “bad law enforcement,” until she was compelled to admit before a Senate hearing that she had not even read the 12-page bill – and this was after she had seen her Cabinet colleague, Attorney General Eric Holder, similarly humiliated in front of a Congressional committee by confessing he had not read the law either, even as he was threatening to sue over it. Whatever you think of the Arizona legislation, consider the intellectual laziness evinced by this behavior.

Simply put, if you want to create and defend a system that compels Americans to be routinely and obscenely violated, you had better be someone who has the faith of the nation and a record of stellar judgment. Janet Napolitano is no such person.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Stanford Prison Experiment at America's Airports

In 1971, researchers set up a prison in the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Department. The idea was to observe how 24 undergraduate students would behave when divided into two groups – “prisoners” and “guards” – and allowed to play out their roles over two weeks. But within 6 days, the simulation had to be stopped. Students playing “guards” became sadistic, while “prisoners” evinced severe anxiety and distress.

Scientific criticisms of the Stanford experiment notwithstanding, the elemental message lingers: It is human nature to abuse authority; and the fewer checks on that authority, the more obscene the abuse becomes.

With that in mind, let’s have a gander at America’s airports and see how the TSA’s new virtual strip-search, busy-fingered pat-down policy is going. To re-cap, government agents have been empowered to subject airline travelers to nude, full-body scans and/or highly invasive hand searches. TSA officers may choose anyone for such scrutiny, without explanation, and if the selected person attempts to avoid whatever search methods the officer decrees – even by opting not to fly – he or she will be detained, prosecuted, and subject to massive fines.

Even without the empirical evidence of eggheads from Stanford, most folks instinctively understand you cannot give people, no matter how well-adjusted, this level of unaccountable authority over others.

Take the example of former Baywatch star Donna D’Errico, who claims a male TSA officer grabbed her out of line at Los Angeles International Airport and forced her to undergo a naked scan. When the fetching Ms. D’Errico asked the officer why she was the only person chosen, he replied, “You caught my eye.” For good measure – and plausibly, to obscure his true motives – the officer also scanned Ms. D’Errico’s young son, and subjected him to an extensive pat-down. Afterward, Ms. D’Errico reports seeing the officer and a male colleague – possibly the one who was privileged to see her naked image on the scanner – smirking and watching her walk on.

Much has been made of the fact that Ms. D’Errico has appeared in Playboy, suggesting nudity ought not to trouble her. That is relevant only insofar as it seems the same assets that got her into the magazine also got her into the scanner. The point is that she was violated with no recourse, escape, or appeal.
Reached for comment, a TSA spokeswoman called the incident “funny.” Really, now? Ms. D’Errico does not find it “funny,” nor does her son, nor do millions of women and families who face the prospect of government-sanctioned sexual violation as the price of travel. Indeed, the word I have read and heard most from females anticipating a flight is, “Dread.”

Consider the case of Stacey Armato, the young mother who was shoved into a glass cage by TSA officers at Phoenix Airport for refusing to allow her breast milk to go through an x-ray machine. She was held for an hour in full view of other passengers, subjected to a thorough hand-search, and told to, “Be quiet if you know what’s good for you.”

No one thought for a second that the breast milk was a matter of national security. I admit I wasn’t there, but I’ll say it again: The breast milk was never a threat. You know it, I know it, and the TSA thugs who abused this woman knew it. But the “guards” were in control.

As the system now stands, stories like these will multiply. Unfortunately, TSA Chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano show little interest in making changes.

Some have suggested the TSA’s methods are part and parcel with the war on terror, and these are small sacrifices for civilians to make while our troops are overseas, fighting for freedom. That’s half-right – our troops are fighting to preserve a free country, not one where husbands and fathers stand helplessly aside while the government takes naked pictures of their wives and children.

Indeed, how might a soldier hunkered down in Iraq or Afghanistan feel, being told that at that very moment back home, a TSA officer was ogling his wife’s naked image, or thrusting his hands into his child’s crotch, ostensibly in the name of the freedom he signed up to defend?

Stop it. Just stop now. Call it whatever you like – a re-evaluation period, a budget cutback, a legal opinion. But turn off your naked scanners, wheel them out, and tell your officers to keep their hands in the sunlight. Learn the lesson from Stanford some 40 years ago and wrap this one up early.

Pistole and Napolitano do not appear to be listening. They imagine we will become inured to scans and gropes, and some day look back, in Virgil’s supposition, to laugh at how prudish we once were. That, I believe, is a miscalculation.

America eventually does the right thing. The scanners will disappear from our airports and the blue gloves will retreat from our inseams. I believe that because I believe in the people of this country. Stick with it, keep at it, and let’s end this together.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is the TSA targeting women?

The young, male TSA officer walks slowly down the line of airline passengers waiting to clear security. He looks down at tickets, up at faces, then points to those whom he selects for additional screening. In a theoretically possible, albeit unlikely, random sample, when the officer reaches the end of the long queue, we find that every passenger he has chosen for further scrutiny is female.

As I watched this scene unfold at Washington, DC’s Reagan-National Airport recently, the moment that struck me most was when the officer looked down at my ticket and seemed about to pull me aside. But when he raised his eyes to see my face, he veered his blue-gloved finger, already in mid-air, toward the woman standing behind me.

I readily admit I do not know what was in that young man's head, but the facts of the incident are straightforward: He appeared about to select me and, after he saw my face, opted for a female instead; further, everyone he picked was a woman.

Since the TSA stepped up its use of full-body x-ray scanners and invasive hand searches at America’s airports, almost every female traveler I know has at least one story of being scanned and/or patted down – and in some cases, they advise it happens every time they fly. Meanwhile, very few of the men I speak to report anything similar.

This is, of course, a wildly unscientific survey of my personal acquaintances, but anecdotal evidence is mounting that TSA officers are inappropriately directing their newfound powers to prod and peer at female passengers. Consider the father who reports hearing a TSA officer tell his colleague by walkie-talkie, “We’ve got another cutie coming through,” before sending the man’s teenage daughter into the scanner; or Eliana Sutherland, who claims two male TSA agents ogled her up and down at Orlando International Airport before one of them pulled her aside for enhanced screening; or Alyson Galen, who says Philadelphia TSA agents selected her for a thorough pat-down because she wore a Dallas Cowboys’ jersey.

The TSA does not provide information on how passengers are selected for enhanced screening, except to say that the process is "random," and these new measures are in place due to "classified intelligence" of imminent threats. But if you'd like further insight into that "random" process and you'd like to see some of that "classified intelligence" – as well as your fellow Americans naked – simply call the TSA employment number advertised on your pizza box and apply today!

TSA Chief John Pistole assures us that officers never see the naked images of the passengers they are "assisting," since the x-ray scans are viewed and deleted in a separate room, and those looking at the images "never interact" with the scanned person. As to the scans themselves, the TSA helpfully shows us, on signs posted at airport security checkpoints, as well on their website, "What Officers See," and it is a blurry image of the photographic quality usually reserved for sightings of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.

If that is what the actual scans looked like, not even the TSA could defend using them, so with all due respect, Mr. Pistole, serve it on toast. More believable representations are available in many of the television news reports on the new procedures available online.

But let's give TSA the benefit of the doubt on the privacy aspect, assuming they do not save or store images, and that officers don't see their "assisted" passengers nude. Human nature being what it is, how hard is it to suppose that if you are working a menial, hourly job at the airport, and you have opaque, random power to choose people to be exposed naked to whichever of your chums is manning the peep booth, you would be tempted to send pleasing shapes through the scanner, on the understanding he will do the same when it's your turn to do the ogling?

The TSA says its officers are 60 percent male, and 40 percent female, and there could be reasons besides prurience that officers might single out travelers for scrutiny – as in the case of Ms. Galen, above.

Some have proposed, bizarrely, that such potential abuses would be averted by paying TSA officers better. But a more practical, economical option is available: The government should stop taking naked pictures of people.

President Barack Obama has defended the TSA’s new procedures, while conceding they are, “a huge inconvenience for all of us.”

"Us," is it? Has the First Family found themselves wrapped up in this predicament? "Mr. President, you're fine, but Michelle, Malia and Sasha will all have to be scanned. Don't worry – the person who'll see them naked is 50 feet away and won’t interact with them – apart from seeing every inch of their bodies, of course.”
America, this is just wrong, and it must end now.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.