Today's TSA: Even Petty Power Corrupts. Perhaps ESPECIALLY Petty Power.
Fear not, America: in a world where so many wish you ill, the Transportation Security Administration is still vigilant against your greatest foe: Americans who have survived cancer.
Yesterday I went through the imaging scanner at JFK Terminal 4 for my Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Evidently they found something, because after the scan, I was asked to step aside to have my breast area examined. I explained to the agent that I was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.
I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched and that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information (pictured) and asked to retrieve it. This request was denied. Instead, she called over a female supervisor who told me the exam had to take place. I was again told that I could not retrieve the card and needed to submit to a physical exam in order to be cleared. She then said, “And if we don’t clear you, you don’t fly” loud enough for other passengers to hear. And they did. And they stared at the bald woman being yelled at by a TSA Supervisor.
I'm sure the TSA will explain why it was necessary to grope a cancer patient in public, just as soon as their official blogger finishes bragging about how the TSA's explosive detection technology helps them interdict smuggled fish.
This is, by far, not the first time we've heard that the TSA acts in an inhuman fashion to people with illnesses and disabilities. We've seen wanton treatment of people with urostomy and colostomy bags, the sick torment of the mentally disabled, and the demands that cancer survivors remove prosthetic breasts. Throughout, for the most part, the media remains the TSA's compliant fluffers. So, though what happened to Lori Dorn is sick and infuriating, it is not new.
One of the questions I've been asking here is why do we let this happen? But there's another apt question: these TSA agents are human beings, of a sort, so why do they act this way? Is there something about recruiting on pizza boxes that attracts a statistically unlikely cluster of sociopaths?
I think the answer is an old one and a simple one, congruent with one of the main themes seen on this blog: power corrupts. If you confer upon a man or woman the power to inflict tyrannies and indignities upon his or her fellow citizens, he or she will slowly grow to hate those fellow citizens, feel justified in mistreating them, and increasingly inflict the indignities with aggression and contempt.
Stanford University has offered two very apt studies, one old and one new. First, there's Philip Zimbardo's chilling and classic prison experiment, which illustrated how ordinary college students — people who on a more typical day would be thinking about weed and sex and avoiding work, people who were probably more countercultural than authoritarian — were transformed by being given even temporary power over others as mock prison guards. And now, more recently, a joint study by Stanford, USC, and Northwestern shows how petty power corrupts:
In a new study, researchers at USC, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Kellogg School of Management have found that individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others. According to the study, "The Destructive Nature of Power Without Status," the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.
The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is "based on the notions that (a) low status is threatening and aversive, and (b) power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings."
(Thanks to Greg Lukianoff for the pointer to that study.)
This study could have been written explicitly about the TSA. TSA agents are poorly paid, work in nasty conditions, and have little status. Yet they have, within their petty fiefdoms, tremendous power to humiliate and demean. And God, do they ever use it.
The fact that this is a recognized psychological phenomenon explains, but does not excuse, any more than it excuses police abuse and bureaucratic indifference. Nor does it excuse the leaders of the TSA and the Department of Homeland security, who have decreed a feckless facade of security theater that is calculated to lead to this result, all in the name of promoting unquestioning compliance.
What are you going to do? Are you going to retell these stories on social media and forums and blogs? Are you going to make it clear, when asked, that you don't accept the security state's excuses at face value? Are you going to write your representatives?
Are you going to stand up? Or is it really no big deal that a petty authority groped and humiliated a cancer survivor in public, purportedly for your safety?
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