The Illusion of Security

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

By Robert C. Koehler

“Please be gentle.”

The story is too easy to believe. At the Memphis airport, a confused, nervous teenager sets off the metal detector — possibly because she has sequins on her shirt — and is told she needs to come to a “sterile area.” Armed guards show up to escort her. She’s terrified.

This happened a year ago. The girl, then 18, is Hannah Cohen. She was flying — at least that was the idea — back to Chattanooga with her mother, Shirley Cohen, who had just passed through the checkpoint and was waiting for Hannah when, according to a lawsuit the family recently filed, a TSA horror story began.

One other thing: Hannah had just undergone what was to be her final treatment for a brain tumor at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She’d been going through this treatment since she was 2 years old. The treatment — radiation and surgery — impaired her ability to function: “The brain tumor had left Hannah blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and partially paralyzed,” according to The Guardian. When the guards grabbed her arms, the girl pulled away and tried to escape.

“Seeing the scene begin to unfold, Shirley” — who had a broken foot — “hobbled to a supervisor standing nearby,” the Guardian continues. “‘She is a St Jude’s patient, and she can get confused,’ (Shirley) said. ‘Please be gentle. If I could just help her, it will make things easier.’”

Instead, the guards threw Hannah to the ground, smashing her face. Finally, all her mother could do was snap a photo. The girl was taken away — to jail. Mom and daughter were separated for 24 hours. Hannah finally appeared before a judge. The charges against her were dropped.

A year later, the family filed a lawsuit.

Maybe there’s more to the story than this. An airport spokesperson said as much to a local paper. Cause and effect may be more complex than the photo of Hannah’s bleeding face that hit the news. But whatever the justification, or lack thereof, for the behavior of the airport security guards, what we have is one more example of Authority — the nation’s security apparatus — reacting with brute force to a complex social situation. This does not make us safe.

What we have instead is a bureaucratic illusion of safety. James Bovard, in an op-ed column last year in USA Today, called it “security theater” — a “routine that is far more effective at subjugating Americans than protecting them.” He cited, for instance, an NBC story indicating that Transportation Security Administration agents, in June 2015, failed to detect “95 percent of the weapons and bombs smuggled past them by Inspector General testers,” seeming to suggest that airport security is almost completely pointless.

I say this not to blame the security personnel. They’re doing a difficult job, almost certainly without proper training. And if they’re armed, the complexity of their social encounters magnifies exponentially. As I wrote last December, in the wake of a briefly newsworthy police killing:

“In Chicago, a police officer shoots a teenager walking in the middle of the street 16 times, almost as though the gun took control of the officer’s consciousness. Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, interviewed recently by Democracy Now, pointed out that, because of budget cuts, only about 20 Chicago police officers have received crisis intervention training.

“My God, budget cuts! In a country that’s waging perpetual war and raking in billions from the global sale of weapons. Yeah, the boy had been acting erratically. But real public safety for the city of Chicago would have included safety for Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke.

“I fear we’re reversing the evolutionary process. We’ve surrendered to simplistic, impulsive, fear-based ‘safety’ and we’re reaping the consequences, one broken soul at a time.”

We’re reaping the consequences, indeed. Security is more than a matter of guns and enemies. As we militarize the illusion of security, more and more we become our own worst enemies.

“We imagine a line between good and evil . . .”

These are the words of Philip Zimbardo, addressing an Association of Psychological Science convention some years ago. He continued: “. . . and we like to believe that it’s impermeable. We are good on this side. The bad guys, the bad women, they are on that side, and the bad people never will become good, and the good never will become bad. I’ll say today that’s nonsense. Because that line is … permeable.”

Zimbardo is the researcher who conducted the famously horrifying Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, in which a group of psychologically healthy male college students were assigned to play the role of prison guards, while another group of college kids were the pseudo-prisoners. Given such power, the guards quickly turned into a collective of sadists. The experiment had to be shut down early. Zimbardo called the phenomenon the Lucifer Effect. Ever since, he’s been sounding the warning that ordinary men and women, in a context of too much power (think, for instance, Abu Ghraib), can cross that line and turn into representatives of evil.

And consider, as Bovard pointed out, that an early TSA motto was “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.”

This is the context in which I hear, all too clearly, a mom call out, “Please be gentle.” And I think about a nation that has no idea how to protect itself.