Monday, November 15, 2010

Notes on Politics: Gov't Absurdity Edition: More Cheese/Less Cheese & Nude Photo or Body Grope at Airports

More Cheese/Less Cheese: This past weekend, the New York Times had a full page graphic which challenged its readers to try to cut the federal budget. I’ve got one suggestion: How about, for starters, the U.S. government stop paying one set of people to do something that is being actively fought by another branch of the U.S. government?

The Times reported last week that the federal government has been waging a pro-cheese effort where a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture works with companies – including Domino’s, Burger King and Taco Bell – to INCREASE the amount of cheese in their products. The group called Dairy Management – what the Times called “a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture” that has a $140 million budget -- “teamed up with Domino’s to develop a line of cheese pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign,” the paper said.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which the Times said has a $6.5 million budget, has admonished us to eat LESS cheese and saturated fat, and to be more responsible about what we eat because we've been told there's an epidemic of obesity in this country. Never mind that Michelle Obama has been running her own anti-obesity campaign. Just this past summer, the Times said, the federal nutrition committee recommended that people who eat pizza should “ask for whole wheat crust and half the cheese.” How about we split the difference and stop chucking good money after bad when the government is running two programs which are at cross-purposes?

If You’re Flying, It’s Nude Photos or a Body Grope: The “enhanced” Transportation Security Administration screenings – which give passengers a "choice" between going through the scanner which takes naked photos of you or submitting to an aggressive body search, including of the groin area – are enough to make you re-think flying, especially during the Thanksgiving week.

We all understand that security measures need to be taken to try to protect the public when they’re aboard commercial airplanes, but these new screenings have gone a step too far, requiring the submission to a humiliating grope or having intrusive images taken of one’s body without probable cause that you might pose a danger. As the mom of three young children, I have to decide which is worse: My kids being subjected to the naked scanner (while the safety of the level of radiation from those machines is being questioned for children, the elderly, cancer and HIV patients and the pregnant) or allowing strangers to touch my children in places where I’ve told them they shouldn’t allow people, outside of their doctor, to touch.

And people are, justifiably, flipping out over this. Everyone from pilots, flight attendants and frequent fliers who have to go through these scanners repeatedly, to general passengers themselves are objecting, including one man who recently refused to consent to a “groin check” when told he had to have one at the San Diego airport and who’s now being threatened with a lawsuit and a $10,000 fine. The man -- who warned the TSA agent that if he touched his “junk” the would-be passenger would have him arrested -- posted a video/audio of his experience on YouTube. In the audio, you a TSA official telling him that he gave up his rights when he bought a plane ticket.

I liked what Dan Gillmor wrote in Salon about what he called the airport “porno-scanners.” Among Gillmor’s salient points:

“The government has lied about how these [scanning] devices work – including an early claim, later refuted, that the images couldn’t be saved or shared – and reputable scientists have challenged the TSA’s assurances that the devices are safe after multiple, long-term exposures.”

“I suspect the uproar, which is absolutely legitimate, has more to do with people’s realization that this invasion of privacy is going to affect them and their children in more direct ways than they’ve contemplated before. Consider: The scanner images of children would qualify as child porn in other circumstances; and the new ‘enhanced pat-down’ procedures, outside of a prison, doctor’s office or your bedroom, would leave the groper liable for prosecution, especially when the gropee is a kid.”

A columnist in the Chicago Tribune, in a column entitled, “Airport security: Government in our pants,” wrote:

“Besides the indignity of having one's body exposed to an airport screener, there is a danger the images will find a wider audience. The U.S. Marshals Service recently admitted saving some 35,000 images from a machine at a federal courthouse in Florida. TSA says that will never happen. Human experience says, oh, yes, it will.

For the camera-shy, TSA will offer an alternative: ‘enhanced’ pat-downs. This is not the gentle frisking you may have experienced at the airport in the past. It requires agents to probe aggressively in intimate zones — breasts, buttocks, crotches.

If you enjoyed your last mammography or prostate exam, you'll love the enhanced pat-down. And you'll get a chance to have an interesting conversation with your children about being touched by strangers.”

Some folks who are particularly outraged about these new security measures have called for civil disobedience of sorts during the Thanksgiving travel period, urging fliers to request pat-downs instead of the scans in order to slow down the security screening process. "National Opt Out Day" is slated for Nov. 24 and its organizer says, "We hope the experience then propels people to write their Member of Congress and the airlines to demand change."
Image credit: Reuters via Salon.

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