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Americans Mad As Hell, Still Going to Take It

In a story titled “A Media False Alarm Over the T.S.A.,” the NYT dissects the failure of National Opt-Out Day. A Drudge video on the outrages of airport security pat-down searches began a host of viral videos, tweets, blog posts, cable coverage, and so forth.

But then, in the real world, nothing happened.

A few passengers opted out and, if anything, lines were shorter because airport security was staffed up and people arrived early just in case.

The occasional protester was surrounded not by angry crowds but eager reporters. Under all the buzz, 80 percent of Americans traveling were still encountering the same procedures that have been in place for years.

Why? Well, David Carr has some guesses:

DISPLACEMENT Deep in their hearts, Americans know that the country has spent almost a decade on a two-front war that has made them feel no safer. Rather than dwelling on the blood and lucre that have been spilled, it’s a little easier to hate on the guy in the blue uniform wearing a cheesy badge and making $15 an hour. Beats thinking the terrorists have won.

RACE AND CLASS Even though air travel is far from luxurious, it is a still a big expense during a time of significant economic upheaval, so the people affected tend to be a little better off and more entitled. While many nonwhite Americans have grown up in a country where they are sometimes searched while merely going about their business — unwarranted stop-and-frisks have gone on for decades — white people aren’t used to having the hands of the state on them without cause. Unfamiliarity breeds outrage.

[…]

GENDER The issue of personal searches and enhanced visibility on scans would seem to be a more acute one for women, given the objectification of women in general and greater history of assault. But discussion on Twitter included two times as many men as women, according to Trendrr. Something primal is at work here, that speaks to both machismo — boys don’t touch boys — and certain male insecurities about being visible to strangers. You thought that dream of being in high school in your underwear was bad.

Uh huh.

Here’s a less convoluted answer:  Getting people to defy the airport security regime is an enormous collective action problem.  A strong minority of us are truly outraged by being treated like criminals by our government despite no reasonable suspicion that we’ve done anything wrong.   But there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it unless there’s coordinated action by our fellow citizens, who seem uninclined to do anything.

Sure, you can be John Tyner.  But, aside from getting 15 minutes of fame by putting a video on the Internet, you get no change in the system and enormous personal inconvenience.  Most of us simply have no desire to subject ourselves to that.   Especially at the airport when, almost by definition, we’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry. Absent a mass revolt — I picture citizens simply ignoring the TSA agents and keeping on walking through the checkpoints on to their gates en masse — or an army of lawyers, you can’t fight city hall.

So, almost everyone who thinks the system outrageous will either decide not to fly — in which case they’re invisible — or they just endure the indignity and get on the plane.  That doesn’t mean people aren’t seething, just that it’s damned hard to get people to accept risk when the likelihood of reward is small.

It’s especially hard in this case because our government is telling us that these measures are For Our Own Good.  The 9/11 attacks were almost a decade ago but they’re still a powerful touchstone.  The result is that those who want to fight the system not only have to buck their own government but also endure scorn from a large swath of their fellow countrymen willing to sacrifice pretty much everything in the name of “safety.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    ….’cause when you’re trying to get somewhere by air, and everyone else is at the same the first thing that comes to mind is “let’s make an already tedious and onerous activity, slower and more difficult for ourselves.” I was pretty sure that this idea would flop, not too many people want to jab themselves in the eye with a pencil either. Now if people not trying to get somewhere with as little inconvenience as possible had the ability to show up and protest it, it might’ve worked.

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  2. William Teach says:

    Amazing. He actually managed to work in racism and class warfare. Liberals really are shameless. Deluded. Idiots. Barking moonbats. Etc and so on.

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  3. Pug says:

    Here’s a  possible explanation of why the protest fizzled:  it was a stupid idea.
    Asking people trying to get through security and get on a plane to intentionally cause themselves long delays is stupid.  Most people just want to clear security and get to the gate.
    I’ve been patted down after setting off the metal detector at Heathrow in London and, James, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.  It took 20 seconds and I went about my day not really all that traumatized by the experience.
    People willingly accept pre-employment drug tests, too.  Peeing in a bottle in front of someone has always seemed more objectionable to me than a quick frisk if I set off the metal detector at the airport.
     

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  4. Stan says:

    Around 15 years ago my wife and I had to make an unplanned trip from the Netherlands to the US to attend a funeral.  The security agent at Schipol subjected me to a searching interrogation, Israeli style, that lasted between fifteen minutes and half an hour.  I’d much rather spend a minute or so being scanned, and I prefer either to going back to the security measures used before the 9/11 attack.

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  5. Pete says:

    James, my wife and I flew from Charlotte to Denver with nary a pat down or scanner. Went through metal detectors and my wife’s necklace was the objection by TSA; not the metal plate and screws in her ankle. This protest was not evident where we were. Methinks it was orchestrated by the lamestream press to gin up some “news.”

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  6. Tano says:

    That doesn’t mean people aren’t seething, just that it’s damned hard to get people to accept risk when the likelihood of reward is small.

     
    Actually, a better sentence would be – “that doesn’t mean people aren’t seething, just that their numbers are very small, even though their voices were pretty loud”
     
    The American people are not sheep, James. You have tried to hype this issue because. I guess, it seems like it would have been a great vehicle for making a libertarian point, but the truth is that there really are people who would be thrilled to bring down a plane if they could figure out how to slip a bomb past security, and the measures that are taken to prevent this are no big deal.
     
    Carr seems to make some excellent points. Displacement – oh yeah. To see how otherwise decent people, like you James, exhibited such contempt for the front-line agents was really bizarre. And I think he was right on with the race/class issues – how the privileged classes go into outrage overdrive when subjected to the treatment they gladly support being inflicted on anyone who could even in theory end up scaring them.
     
    In the end this was a blogosphere – radio bubble phenomenon. Its amazing how often the talkers seem to forget that the overwhelming majority in this country have very different concerns.

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  7. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    “…the failure of National Opt-Out Day.”
    Or was it such a failure? There are credible reports of scanners being turned off at some airports (it’s hard to object to something that doesn’t exist) and pat-downs being more cursory than enhanced. Also, reports from Atlanta suggest that many people opted to use other modes of transportation rather than fly.
    My take is that the protests were less visible than the press would like but even more effective than originally anticipated.

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  8. anjin-san says:

    > There are credible reports of scanners being turned off
     
    Do share.
     
    James, why not come clean and admit that this whole thing has been a classic example of “Faux outrage”. Murdoch pimped you guys, and you went along for the ride happily, though in your case you have always been a little hinky about anything involving air travel.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Tano

    Actually, a better sentence would be – “that doesn’t mean people aren’t seething, just that their numbers are very small, even though their voices were pretty loud” The American people are not sheep, James.

    As the news of this got out, a larger percentage thought the policy very bad.  Getting 30-40 percent of the public outraged despite the power of government and the hype of the fear industry is remarkable.
    Most of us are sheep. I include myself in that.  We’re simply going to accept indignities rather than single ourselves out for inconvenience and further indignity.
     

    To see how otherwise decent people, like you James, exhibited such contempt for the front-line agents was really bizarre.

    First, all the incidents that sparked outrage involved front-line agents behaving like swine.   Second, these simply aren’t professionals, even to the degree that the average local beat cop is.  They’re glorified security guards.   I don’t begrudge them taking a decent paying job to better their circumstances.  But I don’t want to give them substantial discretion over my life, either.
     

    I think he was right on with the race/class issues – how the privileged classes go into outrage overdrive when subjected to the treatment they gladly support being inflicted on anyone who could even in theory end up scaring them.

     
    Educated professionals expect to be treated as respectable citizens by their government and are especially indignant when put in a position where low level functionaries have the ability to subject them to delay, ridicule, and inconvenience.  There’s a class component to that, to be sure, but it’s how all citizens should expect to be treated.
     

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  10. James Joyner says:

    James, why not come clean and admit that this whole thing has been a classic example of “Faux outrage”.

    Where’s the evidence that the outrage wasn’t real?  That people aren’t willing to be inconvenienced or scorned to make a point doesn’t mean they’re not mad.

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  11. wr says:

    Mr. Joyner — I have a great deal of respect for you, but in this one instance you seem to be falling into the standard right-wing mode of thinking: “I’m mad about this, and thus everyone is mad about this. And the fact that no one but talk radio hysterics, Drudge and Murdoch employees are actually manifesting their anger simply proves that everyone is as mad as I am.”
    There is no evidence of this huge outpouring of rage. You are mad, that’s fine. Don’t attribute it to the world.
    Oh, and coffee martini or martini coffee? Training tip go heavy? Has that “Manzine” been updated in the last year? Maybe it’s time to put it to rest…

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  12. mbs says:

    I’m pretty sure the first time most of these people who claim the pat downs are not a big deal have some TSA agent sticking his or her hands down his or her pants and inside his or her underwear (which happened to a female reporter, I’d love to see a man’s reaction to that kind of search), or have to see their 13 year old daughter go though an enhanced pat down, with some low level government bureaucrat putting her hand on the girl’s breasts and genitals, you’ll see lots more outrage. The problem is that very few people have been directly affected yet, but that will change. Most people have a problem getting too outraged about someone else’s violation, and few Americans fly on a regular basis.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @wr

    “I’m mad about this, and thus everyone is mad about this. And the fact that no one but talk radio hysterics, Drudge and Murdoch employees are actually manifesting their anger simply proves that everyone is as mad as I am.”

    The polling shows substantial and growing, if still minority, opposition to the policy.  What this post is doing is explaining why, even though a third or more of air travelers don’t like the policy, they’re unlikely to do anything about it.

    And, yes, Manzine has sort of fallen by the wayside. We started with a stable of writers and some good material but couldn’t sustain the pace.  I have intentions of bringing it back but haven’t found the time.

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    Americans have been laying down for a long time now, not just to government but to corporations as well.  From government:  anti-smoking laws, the TSA, pseudophedrine laws, and more. From corporations:  employment drug tests, workplace surveillance, credit card “security” that amounts to harassment.  Both lists go on and on.  With each small infringement comes a couple of days of bitching followed by acquiescence.
     
    There’s this image Americans have of themselves:  independent, self-reliant, gutsy, take-no-shit.  And then there’s the reality.  We’re soft, compliant and passive-aggressive.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds
    Yeah, that about covers it.  We’ve got a John Wayne self-image and a Dilbert reality.

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  16. michael reynolds says:

    James:
     
    I’m absolutely stealing that line and claiming it as my own.

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  17. […] numbers would seem to support a conclusion that James Joyner made her earlier today: The 9/11 attacks were almost a decade ago but they’re still a powerful touchstone.  The […]

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  18. cshpy says:

    MAD AS HELL …..and NOT taking it…..I don’t fly!!!!!…..If this is how we are to be treated then Who needs em? I’ll drive, take a bus, or a train! The whole thing is just another assenine ploy of this currupt government to keep the citizens in their liitle corners full of fear with their thumbs in their mouths!!!! Furthermore any real terrorist wouldn’t fly either!!! They would get in to this country the easiest way…..disguised as an illegal immigrant with a hispanic accent and ‘waltz right on in across our southern borders’ like all the rest of the illegal immigrants!!!!! Isn’t it odd that most of the recent terrorists caught were arleady here?…..and none of them at airports?????….. If we got our noses out of the business of other countries, we wouldn’t be BOTHERED by these so called ‘terrorists’ to begin with……thats what started the whole mess to begin with anyways…..OUR PRESENCE IN PLACES WHERE WE HAVE NO BUSINESS BEING!!!!!!

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  19. James Joyner says:

    @MichaelPlagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery!

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  20. Tano says:

    Getting 30-40 percent of the public outraged despite the power of government and the hype of the fear industry is remarkable.
     
    What does this mean? “Despite” the hype of the fear industry? It was the fear industry that was behind the outrage manufacturing. Go to the airport and get irradiated. And if you don’t like that, you will will get sexually abused by a lowlife with a badge. The story of the great opt-out flop was the American people NOT falling for the hype of the fear industry.

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  21. Lily says:

    I traved by air over T-Giving week and was not subjected to either a radiation scanner or a pat-down.  At least 1/2 the securities lines i saw didn’t include the scanners – so, there was nothing to opt out of. 
    I don’t belive the ‘enhanced screening’ will make us measurable safer. 
     

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  22. Steve Verdon says:

    There’s this image Americans have of themselves:  independent, self-reliant, gutsy, take-no-shit.  And then there’s the reality.  We’re soft, compliant and passive-aggressive.
     

    Yep, totally agree, and yes James’ line is a good one.
     
    Tano,
     
    We freaking got it dude, we know you love this and like the idea of being searched even though there is no probable cause.  To save us all time just write:
     
    “Standard Tano post about how wonderful this security policy is.  Be happy.  Freedom is slavery, peace is war, and ignorance is strength.”

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  23. Tano says:

    We get it Verdon. We know you are emotionally incapable of dealing with an adversity, even in its mildest form – the existence of an opinion that you disagree with. So why not save us all the time and just write this:
    “Standard Verdon meltdown, complete with requisite name-calling, and moronic hyperbole.”

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  24. anjin-san says:

    So what exactly do the sheep represent? Looks a lot like a bunch of GOP bloggers, obediantly following Fox’s lead…

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