mulcher4 (mulcher4) wrote,

The TSA, Silly Rules, and Asian Philosophy

As I have often said in my strophius journal, I am always impressed by people who are good at what they do. I don't mean simply those whose prowess within a respected profession is widely recognized and applauded: the brilliant surgeon, the virtuoso violinist, the breakthrough inventor. Rather, I stand in awe of short order cooks, janitors, cab drivers and secretaries who perform their duties with levels of skill, focus, and resolve I am certain I could never achieve. Everything we do is part of the cosmic landscape, and to perform a task--any honest task--well is surely, in the parlance of Christian theology, to please God.

This attitude was part of my personal philosophy long before the year 2000, but a year of teaching Eastern Civilizations, especially the semester when I had a 300-level Honors section and really had to know what I was talking about, went a long way to solidifying these ideas. The philosophical position I am describing is situated at the nexus of Confucianism's emphasis on personal responsibility (often translated as "duty," but actually a considerably more complex idea than the English word suggests) and philosophical Taoism's focus on the quest for simplicity and peaceful co-existence with one's surroundings. The Buddhist concepts of nirvana and satori, contrary to the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven (and indeed to Amidha Buddhism's notion of the Western Paradise), describe a complete merging of the individual with the universe. Even Asian aesthetic principles, for example the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, the mixture of loneliness and a somewhat self-conscious rusticity, suggest a spiritual value to the careful performance of secular endeavors.

Accompanying these tenets are other, more pragmatic observations: Confucius, for example, was notoriously wary of any kind of secular regulations. Thus, is wrong to kill, but to do so in self-defense is justifiable, and in a soldier it is the failure to do so in certain circumstances that constitutes an offense. Confucius, who unsuccessfully sought a position not as a leader but as a valued counselor to a leader (imagine if you will an ethical Karl Rove) articulated the notion of the junzi, generally translated as "gentleman," even as he was establishing the first education system anywhere in the world to admit students based on their abilities rather than on their social, political or economic status. The gentleman, then, was not a demographic distinction, but was based on the cultivation of sophisticated skills in reasoning, accompanied by strict ethical standards. The gentleman could then resolve disputes because he was both intellectually qualified to do so and because he was granted (by the emperor) the authority to do so.

The polar opposites to Asian and particularly Confucian norms are the Transportation Safety Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, which are all about the enforcement of laws, even (especially?) idiotic ones, to give a pretense of safety while remaining remarkably unconcerned about whether security actually exists. Having made my living in the theatre for over a quarter century, I have no problems with the notion of illusion, but, as I tell even the non-majors in my Theatre Appreciation class, there is no art without aesthetic distance: the "willing suspension of disbelief," in William Gillette's terms, is central to the aesthetic event. Art relies on a compact between artist and audience: I am going to present illusions to you as if they were actual, and you are going to pretend to believe in them. There is no such compact in airport screenings: we are expected not merely to go along with the fictive representation, but rather to believe that removing the toe-nail clippers from some little old lady's purse somehow makes us safe... even though I myself have inadvertently carried a knife through airport security three times, and virtually everyone who travels even occasionally has similar tales to tell.

This week, there were two stories in the national media about air travel, the TSA, and the regulations we all must live by. First came this story about a possible, long-overdue, re-thinking of security regulations: relaxing some of the stupidest of the post-9/11 prohibitions against small knives, nail clippers and the like, and making it possible to actually walk through the metal detector without taking off one's shoes. Turns out there's a brain out there, after all. Maybe. Of course, subsequent to this announcement, the flight attendants union did their best Chicken Little imitation, claiming that anything that could possibly used as a weapon ought to be prohibited. Of course, this would mean either that everybody on the plane would be shackled, or that any decent-sized male would have to have at least both arms amputated. Self-defense courses remind us that virtually anything can be a weapon: a key, a ball-point pen, a rat-tail comb. Absolute safety is impossible; it's a matter of where the balance lies between civil liberties and safety. More importantly, we need to make sure that whatever liberties we choose to surrender are at least relevant, and many of the current rules are just inane: it never made sense to impose the kind of restrictions we got after 9/11.

A couple of years ago I was flying from Houston to San Diego. I got pulled out of line for the special search. Why? Because I had just been added to the flight. The reason? I was scheduled to make a connection in St. Louis, but there was a thunderstorm there, so my flight was canceled and I was put on a flight to Denver, where I could connect to San Diego. In the perverse world of Homeland Security, this made me a terrorist suspect. Really. Because, you see, that's how they work. They predict weather so well three weeks in advance that they know the St. Louis airport will be closed, so no one will suspect anything might be amiss when they board that Denver flight at the last minute. Clever bastards.

The other story about security and air travel just surpasses credulity. Apparently it has been standard procedure for the mental deficients who are in charge of airline security to deny access to flights for anyone whose name matches--or is similar to--a name on the no-fly list. So it is that over a dozen children under the age of two have been prevented from boarding flights in the name of security. Don't get me wrong: I've sat next to enough mewling and puking urchins that anything that keeps their screaming and kicking out of my personal space is just fine by me... but I really don't think they're terrorists, and anyone who does just needs a good bitch-slapping. The security people recognize that the rule is stupid, but there's been no provision for the folks actually on the ground to exercise a little common sense. (The good news is that there is now--because the media got ahold of the issue, not because of any real recognition of the lunacy of the policy--a new edict whereby children under 12 will be allowed to board flights without challenge.) Admittedly, one is somewhat loath to entrust decision-making to people who can't get a better job than working for TSA, but surely it can't be worse than turning the criminal justice system over to people too stupid, in the words of one prominent attorney, to get out of jury duty. And certainly my experience of the TSA has been that they're more interested in strutting their power than they are in showing compassion: I think we can trust them to be tough enough, if only because it plays well to their self-importance.

Of course, the whole idea of a no-fly list is problematic. The idea that someone who can pass through security can still remain a threat is in fact an admission that the security screenings don't work except as a cosmetic deterrent. It is difficult to go a month without the news that some test of security at some airport has demonstrated conclusively that the average TSA screener lacks the training, the intelligence, or the vigilance to actually thwart a real threat. We'd be better off hiring out of Central Casting: at least they'd look like they might be able to stop a terrorist. Of course, news reports that yet another fake bomb made it through security at a major American airport are slowly gravitating towards the back of the newspaper, because it no longer shocks us that airport security is intrusive and demeaning, but completely ineffective.

Ultimately, we need look no further if we seek concrete evidence that in this particular arena, if the expression might be forgiven, the terrorists have won. Shortly after September 11, there was a spate of bumper stickers and t-shirts with pictures of the American flag, sporting the cut-line, "These colors don't run." Perhaps not, but we have, as a culture, abandoned liberty for self-imposed repression, reasonable deliberation for tail-chasing, and deliberate caution for hysterical panic... all because of fear. Those colors might not be running, but their tail is between their legs and they're cowering in the corner.

Confucius would not be impressed.
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