Yes, he was threatening me with detention and a strip search. What had I done? I hadn’t lost my temper. Not yet, at any rate. I hadn’t even sighed or rolled my eyes. I had, however, explained that I was late for my flight and needed to be searched and released immediately. Rather than wait for a female TSA employee, I explained, I would prefer to have one of the men perform it.
No dice. I waited silently for the “gender appropriate” search that would allow me to get on with my day. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as a person who has lived an entire adult life in erotic relationships with women, it’s really hard to understand how having a woman run her hands up and down my body and into my waistband is designed to make me more comfortable being touched by a stranger. But navigating airport security is not about logic, comfort — or even security.
It is about learning to be compliant in a militarized society.
Everyone who can’t afford NetJet hates to fly. But I may have a deeper acquaintance with the intricacies of militarized air travel than you do because I have a lot of metal in my body. A bunch of steel staples in one knee from a teenage joint reconstruction and a full-on titanium prosthetic in the other leg means that metal detectors are never set high enough for me to go through unnoticed. When scanners were introduced, I was one of the few passengers who volunteered for imaging (I have, as you might imagine, had a lot of imaging) because I imagined that I might once again become a traveler who didn’t set off alarms.
Nope: heads I win, tails I lose. You see, I also have a large patch of Kevlar in my gut from a hernia repair (advantage: it makes me bullet-proof in that region!) so that when I go through the scanner it shows up as a large white square. I guess it is routinely mistaken for a big, whacking piece of Semtex or C-4 explosive. TSA folks question me closely about what I “have in my pocket,” body search me and lecture me that I should have gone through the metal detector. They claim it is set too high to detect my knee. But it isn’t. Just today, at New York’s Laguardia Airport, I tried going through the metal detector and it alarmed. The TSA employee lectured me that I should have gone through the scanner — and body searched me.
So despite the fact that I am a TSA preferred traveler, I can look forward to a pat down and a lecture every time I board a flight, probably for the rest of my life, or until Al-Qaeda cries uncle.
How safe has the TSA made us with all their routines and precautions? In one recent test, 95% of the weapons and fake bombs undercover teams carried into screenings went undetected. I once went through security for an international flight with a rather large knife that I had forgotten to remove from my bag after a camping trip, a knife that wasn’t discovered until I went through a second scanner in Amsterdam. A polite Dutchman quietly removed it and crushed it on the spot.
But the TSA never misses that Kevlar patch; and the metal detector is always set too low for my prosthesis.
Being subjected to invasive and arbitrary authority is what it means to live, and travel, in a militarized society. I rarely end up being detained at security for any length of time, but controlling my anger is a regular aspect of travel for me, even before I get to the gate. I know that the punishment for noncompliance ranges from inconvenience to arrest. So I submit to whatever these agents of the state want to do, including listening to a lecture that cannot be interrupted, even if I beg them to stop talking and just get on with it. Fortunately, although I am sometimes irritable with them, I don’t have a strong sense of physical or personal shame. It’s very fortunate, in fact, since I have also sat at the end of the baggage scanner waiting as TSA employees giggle, smirk and point at personal items they detect in my carry-on.
The process of getting through security is an exercise in arbitrary and pointless authority which softens customers up for being treated poorly at the gate. There, prior to boarding the aircraft, we are all elaborately sorted into groups depending on how much extra we have agreed to fork over to be treated rudely on a dirty, crowded airplane. I am glad to say that I have never been beaten and dragged off the flight, as United Airlines passenger David Dao was on April 9. The fallout from this incident has now become international: Dao screamed that he had been selected because he was Chinese, which apparently people in China are taking seriously. I can’t imagine why, can you? Maybe White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer can explain it.
United is not a uniquely terrible airline: all airlines are terrible airlines now, and air travel is an exercise is feeling gratitude about being allowed to board the flight you are booked on. Decades of government deregulation has permitted — nay, encouraged — these companies to become terrible airlines that are allowed to break any promise they have made to the customer. They treat passengers badly, they treat their employees badly, and they are protected in their bad behavior by large numbers of ill-paid, ill-trained, officious federal paramilitaries and industry rent-a-cops.
If air travel has changed for the worse, it is important to note that those changes are due less to the threat of terrorism than they are to the threat of capitalism. As in the rest of life, terrorism has become an excuse to militarize airport spaces and discipline customers into accepting low levels of service and civility, even as airlines are making money. As a passenger who now sometimes travels once or twice a month for work, I have adapted to bad service and ill-treatment so incrementally that it is hard to recall an earlier life when people who paid for an economy seat were not treated like freeloaders. When I was a kid, I flew two or three times a year, and we were showered with free meals, blankets, and pillows. In an attempt to cultivate the air travelers of the future, there were also presents: mini-flight bags, and aluminum pins that designated kids as a “Junior Pilot” or “Junior Stewardess” (no, you could not have a pin that did not correspond to your gender, and female bodied children could not grow up to be pilots in the 1960s.) Only two things worried me as a young air traveler: that my sister would barf in flight (actually, we both suffered from air sickness, but hers lingered a bit longer than mine); and that the plane would be hijacked, a regular event by 1970s. The unexpected trip to Cuba was less of a concern than the prospect that I might run out of snacks and reading material, so I always packed extra food and more than one book. This is something I do to this day, even though it is far more likely that my flight will be cancelled — or that I will be bumped from a flight I have paid for weeks in advance — than that the plane will be hijacked.
Why are people so angry at United, the airline that used to invite us to “fly the friendly skies” following David Dao’s “Involuntary debarring?” Because the deregulation of air travel means that it is not a question of whether we will be treated badly, but when,and how badly. It is about how many rude, officious and incompetent people we will encounter before we land. Furthermore, every bit of comfort is sold as an extra. As I checked into my flight last night, I was given a choice of whether to have my legs folded up backwards at a 45 degree angle, or pay $40 for more leg room; whether to sit in the back, near the toilets, or pay $70 not to sit in the back near the toilets. Instead of standing in line with the hoi-polloi and hipchecking someone’s granny away from the last overhead bin, I could have paid an extra $130 to — wait for it — have the same seat but board the plane before other economy passengers. And I could pay every single one of those fees, be completely obedient and compliant, and still be kicked off the flight arbitrarily because it is legal for the airlines to do that.
Free market capitalism proposes that it isn’t necessary for the government to set standards for an industry because customers will reward good service with their business and weed out the bad businesses. But the airline industry is a prime example of why that is not true: all American airlines are bad, and there are no choices for the average person. According to CNBC, United isn’t even the worst. The choice would be not to fly at all.
Our compliance with the airlines’ exploitative business practices is enforced not only by their willingness to physically harm us if we resist, but by the fact that our social spaces are thoroughly saturated with police. Yes, Dao was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, perhaps even because he was Chinese. But the real significance of the decision to beat him and drag him off the plane is that he is intended to be an example to all of us.
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor at Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter @TenuredRadical. A version of this post was previously posted on her website.