Flying Naked

So, a guy tried to light his penis on fire on an airplane last week, and now we’re having a debate over whether or not passengers should endure virtual strip searches while going through airport security.

Frankly, I’m really frustrated with this penchant for reactionary politics.

Yes, we live in an era of terrorism; average Americans are finally aware that decades of eschewing global diplomacy (a political position perpetuated by a long litany of presidents who perceived the international community as a wild, wild West to their John Wayne) has left the rest of the world with a sour taste for America and Americans. Enter the suicide bombers, and the wannabe suicide bombers, whose sole goal has become to destroy himself and as many other innocents he can in order to send a political message that America has screwed up. Terrorists have no common culture, religion, or skin colour; terrorists are the down-trodden and miserable who have turned insane and murderous.

Now, of course, it is the federal government’s responsibility to deter terrorists from taking the lives of citizens. And certainly, terrorism is the kind of tactic that does not — can not, will not — work as a means of political activism. It only serves to radicalize the terrorist, and to shut down lines of negotiation. A terrorist will never terrorize the hegemony into changing; a terrorist only seeks gratification in communicating — through the most destructive and amoral means possible — his own pain at his own sociopolitical stature. In many ways, terrorism is an extension of the age-old adage: misery loves company. If a terrorist truly sought political change, he would realize that terrorist acts only undermine any constructive efforts towards that goal.

This fact is no more apparent than in the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber who tried to explode a Detroit-bound airbus on Christmas Day by igniting explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants. Abdulmutallab is 23 years old — a mere child — who for reasons that have yet to be revealed to the public, was so frustrated and angry that he (allegedly) wanted to off himself and 290 other people in one mad, irrational, and ultimately immature act of fury and rage. His actions were insane, but he is only one in a long line of terrorists who, intoxicated by the emotional appeal of vengeance-begotten terrorism, have invented new ways to attempt to blow themselves (and those around them) up.

What frustrates me, however, is the reactionary approach America’s Homeland Security has taken towards deterring terrorists. Terrorists have stayed ahead of the federal government, primarily because the federal government keeps looking backwards in trying to stop terrorists. In the wake of 9/11, airport security was greatly increased, but little was done to secure harbours and sea ports, train stations or bus stations. When the shoe bomber attempted to ignite his own shoes on an airplane, new regulations required passengers to remove their shoes so they could be scanned by the X-ray machine. Would-be terrorists with liquid explosives ended the era of passengers being able to bring bottled water (or liquid medications or contact lens solution) onto flights. And now that the underwear bomber thought of shoving explosives down his underpants, the federal government is coming up with ways to scan passengers’ underwear in a convenient, hygenic, and “non-invasive” way.

The strategy that we will most likely see implemented in U.S. airports is the installation of full-body scanners which employ a couple of strategies to generate a digital image of a person without clothes, revealing any dense items hidden within a person’s clothing. One type of scanner, dubbed a “millimeter wave” scanner, creates a low resolution image using non-ionizing electromagnetic waves. Here’s some sample images released by the TSA:

Sample images from millimeter wave full-body scanner

Another scanner, called the “backscatter X-ray”, employs a low-intensity X-ray to generate an image of a body while stripping away layers of clothing. Here’s a sample image taken of a victim volunteer wearing a gun to demonstrate the scanner’s effectiveness at detecting hidden weapons:

Sample image from a "backscatter x-ray" scanner

Currently, the TSA is favouring the millimeter wave scanner because the low resolution, they feel, will minimize privacy concerns. Further, these scanners are being modified such that they will not save images, so that naked pictures of you (or your favourite celebrity) don’t end up on TMZ. In addition, these scanners are going to be set up such that the person holding the metal detector wand and waving you through the security checkpoint isn’t also looking at your naked form on their computer screen; instead, images will be transmitted to a different location in the airport where they will be reviewed by a security guard who sees the scans with the faces obscured. 

However, both strategies share in common the ability to detect objects — weapons or otherwise — that a person has hidden on their person. And this, I think, is an invasion of personal privacy.

Contrary to how most folks are criticizing the implementation of this full-body scanning technology, this isn’t a puritannical fear of having others being able to see you naked. All of that hullaballoo basically amounts to “Oh my God! You can see me naked even if I don’t want you too!”. Yeah, you’re not that cute, mister — no one is dying to virtually strip you down to your skivvies to drool over you in your birthday suit.

 The privacy concerns are completely about whether or not you, or I, or any other airline passenger has the right to privately carry a possession while travelling. Be it a piece of jewelry handed down from your great grandparents, a piece of medical equipment you don’t want your co-workers knowing you need, or a secret cell-phone you’re using to help conduct an adulterous affair — complete strangers (even ones who work for the TSA) should not have the ability to be aware of — and access to — items on your person you don’t want them (or anyone else) to know about. These full-body scanners are as invasive, and as unethical, as a virtual strip-search. And frankly, it’s not too far from a virtual cavity search, either.

Moreover, no amount of security will eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorists will be able to invent new ways to bypass these scanners, as they were able to bypass our ban on shoes and tiny bottles of shampoo on airplanes. To put it simply, a determined terrorist — particularly one who is willing to lose his life in the act of terror — will find a way.

Instead of trying to play an endless game of catch-up, why hasn’t the federal government revised its strategy on securing airports and other high-traffic areas? It shouldn’t be about constantly adding new (and admittedly, at least to the science geek in me, kinda cool) pieces of technology to the already long list of things to do at the security checkpoint — making the amount of time it takes to board a plane longer than most flights, themselves. Instead, how about screening passengers at check-in or flagging suspicious behaviour? How about actually disseminating no-fly lists to all relevant departments and keeping those lists up-to-date with information? Or better yet, how about altering our international policies so that folks are less pissed with us in general?

But, of course, that’s not going to happen, because it’s politically safer to close the security gap that allowed what has been done, than to scare the tax-paying public into paying for something with a story of what still could be done. Meanwhile, this whole fiasco is yet another reminder as to why I hate flying. I mean really, between:

  1. aforementioned security bullshit, and
  2. restrictions preventing me bringing most of my belongings as carry-on items, and
  3. charging me ($20 or more!) to check a piece of luggage, as well as charging me for food, entertainment and even blankets, and
  4. rude flight attendants, and
  5. grimy seats and floors that aren’t even cleaned between flights anymore, and
  6. overcrowded planes full of inconsiderate passengers and their screaming babies

… next time I travel, I’m taking the frickin’ train.

Sarah Palin – A Minority Thing


Sarah Palin’s got no shortage of embarassing moments in her personal history. From an unflattering, and much lampooned, interview with Katie Couric to being taped by reporters giving statements in front of a graphic turkey slaughter, Palin is a textbook example of “Politics 101: What Not to Do If You Want to Stay Relevant”.

If Palin is gearing up for 2012, she’s gearing up to run for dogcatcher.

But, in what appears to be an effort to keep her name in headlines, Palin released a memoir earlier last month, titled “Going Rogue“. In it, Palin casts herself as an “of-the-people” politician, mishandled by Washington “insider” (a term that Palin finds most damning) political advisors in the McCain campaign. She attempts to address the many embarassments of her 2008 candidacy as McCain’s vice presidential pick. Although the book has been hyped as a vanity project-turned-appeal to voters, Palin has created quite a splash (and caused much head-scratching) by extending her book tour only to strongly sympathetic cities she won over during the 2008 campaign season, and by refusing to allow mainstream media outlets to cover her book tour lectures.

But this week, Palin’s “Going Rogue” has raised even more eyebrows.

Palin recounts in her book how she ventured out of Alaska while attending college. Her first undergraduate institution (of four) was at Hawaii Pacific University, which she attended in the fall of 1982, but quickly left the university to continue her undergraduate education at North Idaho University.

In “Going Rogue”, Palin describes her decision to move away from Hawaii thusly: “Hawaii was a little too perfect… Perpetual sunshine isn’t necessarily conducive to serious academics for eighteen-year-old Alaska girls.”

But Palin’s father paints a far different picture. In an interview given to reporters compiling information for a book titled “Sarah from Alaska”, Palin’s father Chuck Heath, says Palin was made uncomfortable by the high number of Asian Americans in Hawaii. He is quoted as describing the problem as “a minority type thing and it wasn’t glamorous, so she came home.” 

Hold up. What?

Asian Americans, including descendents both of indigenous Hawaiians as well as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean immigrants during the late nineteenth century, make up more than 40% of Hawaii’s population, making Hawaii home to one of the most populous concentrations of Asian Americans in the United States. Without a doubt, Asian Americans are the numerical majority in Hawaii, and Whites, comprising about 27% of the population, are the minority.

It’s tempting to conclude that Palin’s discomfort with the “minority thing” in Hawaii was due to anti-Asian bias; after all, the quote reads as if Palin couldn’t handle being so close to so many Asian people, as if black hair and mocha skin made her nauseous. And the whole thing rings of the kind of “Yellow Peril” stereotype that grips far too many.

But, I tend to think the problem was “race shock”. Palin grew up in Alaska, where nearly 70% of the state is made up of Whites. She was undoubtedly a member of the racial majority, and probably thought of race issues as the kind of thing only ”outsiders” had to worry about. Stepping foot in Hawaii was not just an exposure to the fact that there are, indeed, different kinds of people in the world, but suddenly Palin had to reconcile herself with the notion that she wasn’t part of the racial majority, or the ”norm”, anymore.

Being a minority isn’t easy; those of us who live our lives every day as part of a racial identity that is a numerical minority in our city or town know all too well the curious looks, the racist assumptions, and the sense of “Otherness” that comes with waking up in our skin.

Palin experienced that feeling for the first time when she was eighteen years old. And, like so many other majority-turned-minority, she ran as far away from that place as she could. In her very own example of hysterical White Flight, Palin packed her bags for one of the Whitest states in the Union: Idaho.

Well, we can say one thing about Palin: when she puts her mind to something, she sure commits. Idaho’s White population made up nearly 97% of the state in 2005.

The problem here isn’t that Palin hates or fears Asians, it’s that she ran scared from the experience of being a racial minority in Hawaii. For a woman who, by all accounts, covets the Oval Office, she demonstrates in this moment in her personal history her lack of readiness to lead a nation wherein racial “minorities” will overtake the number of Whites within the next thirty years. How will Palin fare if the entire country starts looking a little more like Hawaii by the time she’s president? Will she able to handle calling D.C. her home for four years while African Americans still outnumber Whites there by 54% to 40%? Or will Palin turn tail and run back to the suburbs of the Midwest, where she no longer has to face the “discomforts” of race relations?

And above all, Palin has painted herself as a politician of the people. Her schtick is all about her hockey mom persona, and she hopes to rekindle the sense of familiarity and down-to-earth homey-ness invoked by George W. Bush during his 2000 campaign. Yet, how does she plan to make friends with voters across the nation when she has demonstrated fear and discomfort with racial difference? Nearly one third of all voters aren’t White!

Palin values her status as a Washington “outsider”, yet it seems that, in at least one opportunity, she couldn’t handle “outsider” status. Instead, in the height of hypocrisy, she did what she has criticized her political opponents for doing ad nauseum: she sought soothing comfort in the familiarity of being an “insider”.

But then, what does that say about the rest of us “outsiders” who haven’t moved to our iterations of Idaho?

Lazy Link-Blogging #1

I don’t know if the #1 is an implication that there are more lazy link-blogs to come, but here are a couple of good reads I found today:

California may be a beacon of diversity, with Asians, Latinos and African Americans comprising the majority. But when it comes to its nonprofit sector, that racial and ethnic diversity is not reflected, and Latinos are especially underrepresented, according to a recent study.

Although Latinos are more than one third of California residents, they represent just 6 percent of directors and 28 percent of staff jobs at nonprofit groups. Among members of boards of directors, Latinos are just 9 percent.

Asian Americans are also underrepresented in leadership positions, though less dramatically. They are 12 percent of Californians, but just 7 percent of executive directors of nonprofits.

Rola admitted that the amount of research done in the area of Asian LGBT studies is still small, calling the field “relatively new territory.”

But before examining the experiences of Asian members of the LGBT community, Rola stressed that her use of the term “Asian” does not imply a uniformity of experience for “a host of people from very different, disparate groups.” Every culture is different, as is every family, although Rola suggested that a shared “history of war” helps to tie them together.

Rola described how many Asian Americans struggle to form a cultural identity in a society that is not predominantly Asian, and explained that students of color tend to go through six stages of understanding their culture: conformity, dissonance, immersion, emersion, internalization and integrative awareness. These steps outline a tumultuous and emotional process where the student first tries to fit in with the dominant culture before changing his or her worldview and consequentially taking steps to define himself or herself as Asian American.

NYC City Council Changes Its Colours — Film at 11

In a news story only Fox News could publish, with Tuesday’s election results comes the headline: “Whites Become Minority on NYC City Council“.

Cue racial hysteria.

Interestingly, Whites have been the racial minority in NYC for the last several years.