December 25, 2010

Body Scanners Expand the State’s Boundaries

The recent flap over the TSA security measures –both manual pat-downs and  backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave scanners—has been painted as presenting a conflict between personal privacy and national security.

We might more accurately call it a conflict over boundaries, personal and national.  Who has the right to cross what borders?  What is the proper boundary between my body and the state?

This trope, which is also present in other conflicts, like that over abortion, is particularly apt in a battle against terrorism. Boundaries, after all, are precisely what terrorists violate.  Violent actors’ capacity to terrorize originates in their readiness to transgress both physical and moral boundaries.  The more flagrant the violation, the more terrified we become. Terrorists do not obey the agreed on boundaries of sovereign states, nor those that we—the global community—have sanctioned to regulate war:  we draw boundaries between just causes for war and unreasonable ones and, crucially, between combatants and civilians.  The line between combatant and civilian in war is sacrosanct to most of us; on one side, we go toward injury, on the other, we are to be protected from it.

Perhaps it is the nature of this particular conflict that has led to a peculiar focus by the United States on bodies and boundaries, an intersection that is often shadowed by the erotic, whether for good or ill.

There is the ongoing confusion over whether others are combatants are civilians.  We do not know where to draw the line.  If you were an Afghan, or even a non-Afghan, in the orbit of Al Qaeda in 2001, did that make you a terrorist? This was the justification that brought many to Guantanamo.  Can an American be an enemy combatant—the answer lies in where you draw the boundaries of the nation.  Quasi-sexual forms of humiliation and violation have played a striking role in this conflict—at both Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, it must have seemed to those who held power over their prisoners that they were somehow responding proportionally to their sense of national violation, by removing from individuals the rights to assert the boundaries of their own bodies.

In the years since 2001, the boundarylessness of the global world has become increasingly problematic for the United States.  Globalization was once a process that we Americans proudly asserted that we had invented and brought to the rest of the world; an opportunity for everyone else to enjoy the fruits of modernity.  Increasingly, the lack of boundaries has itself become a terrifying vision of people, information, and violent ideas moving fluidly in the world, circulating without ever arriving at a border.  What a bad headache: in this vision, illegal immigrants and drugs flow in, while secret information and jobs flow out.

To counter  this bad vision, US national security policy is now underwritten by the need, above all, to establish strong borders.  Donald Kerwin, the Executive Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., has described persuasively how the post 9-11 merger of immigration and homeland security undermines more than it helps.  More restricted immigration keeps talented, brainy foreigners from the kind of work the U.S. must perform to stay globally competitive, and returns deserving asylum seekers and refugees to various versions of persecution and terrorism in their home countries.

And now, the TSA’s lowest level employees have been granted the authority of the state to transgress our own bodily boundaries, whether they view us as if naked on a computer screen or subject us to an “enhanced” pat down, that travelers have described as humiliatingly intrusive.

There is more than enough compelling evidence that body scanners and pat-downs are paltry measures in comparison to diligent intelligence, good law enforcement and astute behavioral profiling.  Why then, the increasingly intrusive methods of revealing to us we are not sovereign over our own bodies? Security expert and TSA critic extraordinaire Bruce Schneier asks a plausible question when he wonders “So what’s next? Strip searches? Body cavity searches?”  Because the United States has effectively remained terrorized by violation of its boundaries a decade ago.  Unable to enforce its own boundaries in a widening number of provinces: national, informational, financial, economic, it seems that our own government seeks to increase its reach at home, extending the borders of the state into the bodies of its citizens.

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