Monday, April 12, 2010

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I'm not a tech kinda guy. I struggle with the mechanics of this blog business (which is probably obvious to anyone who wonders about the odd spacing between lines and how it is that fonts seem to change haphazardly in the middle of a post). But the problem I'm having at the moment isn't technological, it's legal - a matter of copyright.

What I wanted to do was start this post out not with an apology/explanation (which is, in my tiresome and roundabout way what I'm doing - good god, I hope I don't sound like Jack Marshall) but with a copy of Monday's Curtis.

, for those who don't know, is a comic strip about an 11-year-old African-American kid in a warm, loving, getting-along-but-struggling family in the big city. Curtis' best friend is a fellow named Gunk who comes from Flyspeck Island - apparently a place of magic and miracles and all sorts of things that get Curtis in trouble.

Anyhow, I wanted to put today's strip at the top of the page, but see, I don't have reprint rights (and won't seek them or pay for them) and without them, everytime I copy the strip and then paste it, it turns into a note that says I don't have authorization. (I suppose I could scan it and then post it, but that would be copyright infringement and, anyway, I don't have access to a scanner this minute. End of apology and explanation.

Now, here's the post.

Imagine, if you will (and if you won't, why are you here) two boys walking along the street. One, a blond kid, is explaining to his friend, a black kid, about Flyspeck Island peanuts which, if you eat one, allows you to hear what people are thinking. Curtis got in trouble with them last week. Here's the panel by panel dialogue:

Panel 1: GUNK: Believe it or not, Curtis, the Flyspeck Island peanut has its positive use!

Panel 2: GUNK: It was developed by top Flyspeck Island scientists at the request of the Flyspeck Island Judicial Department.

Panel 3: GUNK: The judge would take one to find out if someone was lying or tellin' the truth!

Panel4: CURTIS: Isn't thought-reading an invasion of a person's privacy?
GUNK: We have a zero percent crime rate on Flyspeck Island!
That's the quandry, of course. What will you trade for safety? How about for the illusion of safety?

Yesterday, I took a plane. I stood in line for 30 minutes or so waiting to go through security. A TSA officer compared the name on my boarding pass with the name on my driver's license and actually held up the license picture and looked from it to my face. He let me pass. (No jokes, please. It's a federal offense to joke in the security line.) Then I dutifully took off my shoes and belt and jacket. I emptied the fairly substantial amount of metal stuff in my pockets into my shoes and jacket pocket. I took my laptop out of its case. I took my quart bag of shaving gel and toothpaste and mouthwash and deodorant out of my carry-on. I put bunches of stuff into bins and the bags onto the conveyor along with the bins. I walked through the metal detector and got dressed.

Were I a determined suicide bomber, I could have killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of folks while I was undressing for the screening. A shade less fancy than hijacking an airliner or blowing it up in mid-flight, but suitably gruesome. Truly strip and body-cavity search everyone. Then eliminate all luggage, checked and carry-on. Then eliminate passengers and flight crew. The plane may just be safe from terrorists. Especially if it doesn't fly.

In a sufficiently aggressive police state, street crime by everyone except the police can be pretty well eliminated.

We, by which I mean the framers of this republic, made a choice not to be that society. We, by which I mean fear-mongering politicians and their successfully fear-mongered constituents, insist that the way to honor that choice is to become that society.

And so we move toward strip-searching airplane passengers;* we exile those ever convicted of sex offenses; we lock drug users up for decades; we criminalize everything we can think of and then pile on. Then we adopt zero-tolerance policies.

They're the policies responsible for the boy being expelled for giving his asthma inhaler to a fellow high school student suffering an attack who'd left hers at home. (And for the 11-year-old boy who died because his school's zero-tolerance policy forced him to leave his at home.) They're the policies responsible for Zachary, the 6-year-old with the scout camping knife/fork/spoon suspended and sent to reform school. And of course you can't joke to TSA when you're trying to get on an airplane.

The idea has two parts:
  1. Schools (the world) are dangerous places and all danger must be prevented.
  2. Discretion might be (probably will be) abused, so prohibit it.
The problem, of course, is that prohibition of discretion is its own problem. Here, from the Times article about Zachery:

Education experts say that zero-tolerance policies initially allowed authorities more leeway in punishing students, but were applied in a discriminatory fashion. Many studies indicate that African-Americans were several times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other students for the same offenses.

“The result of those studies is that more school districts have removed discretion in applying the disciplinary policies to avoid criticism of being biased,” said Ronnie Casella, an associate professor of education at Central Connecticut State University who has written about school violence. He added that there is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer.

We don't accomplish much, but we scare the hell out of everyone and turn our children into criminals for behavior that used to be considered just what kids do. (And yes, way too often those are minority kids we're sending down the school-to-prison pipeline.)

It's what comes from rule by fear and politics by plebescite.

Last night at dinner we were talking about revolutionary movements and activists and demand for change. In the 30s it was labor. In the 50s, 60s, into the 70s it was blacks and anti-war activists and women. Those same folks are still out there, still struggling (along with lots of others, of course, most powerfully at the moment the LGBT community). But the real action today is with the Tea Party folks.

But they take us back, not forward. They push the fear, not the freedom. And what happens next?

I've told this story before. Back in 2004 or 2005, during the question session at the end of a program on how all this security invades our privacy without making us any safer, a lawyer (a lawyer!) stood up.
What can you do to make me feel safer on an airplane?
The answer, of course, is
Not a damned thing.
I can't do anything because I don't have any power to adjust airline or airport security and actually make it more secure. And, more importantly, I can't do anything to make him feel safer because he's asking the wrong question.

He'll feel safer when he believes he is safer, I suppose. And that has nothing to do with actually being safer but everything to do with the illusion of safety. Who needs freedom, liberty, privacy when you can have, instead, tyranny without street crime?

Flyspeck Island, anyone?

*Don't believe that rot about how the body scanners images can't be abused. They can be. They will be. They are being.

1 comment:

  1. What should have been said and repeated to everyone concerned:
    Your feelings are not high on my list of priorities today. Tomorrow isn't looking good either.

    You nailed it. It's impossible to make some anal-retentive bed wetter feel more secure about anything. The sooner the general public understands that, the sooner we can dismantle the pseudo security we use now and apply some real security.