Countering TSA Deindividuation

 Posted on September 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

What to do about the TSA?

A commenter suggested posting TSA agents' personal contact information online for all to see. While I think their names should be widely known (so that those who don't want to do business with TSA employees can refuse to), the idea of publishing government thugs' home addresses doesn't sit well with me.

Those of us who see the TSA as an out-of-control bureaucracy that exacts too great a civil-liberties cost for too small a security benefit are right. Having been handed the high ground of righteousness, we should strive to keep it. Our adversaries say, "Whatever it takes!"; we should do whatever is right to solve the problem. If whatever is right doesn't work, then we can regroup and consider how dirty it's worth getting.

TSA employees' identities are not private information. TSA agents are public servants, wearing ID, working in public; they have no right to privacy, nor should they. Publishing their identities is simply disseminating otherwise-public information about our employees. Publishing their home addresses and home telephone numbers is an intrusion into their privacy. While they have unduly intruded into our privacy, we don't need to intrude into theirs. Yet.

When people are behaving as anonymous parts of a group, they are not constrained by the societal norms that they otherwise follow. (See, e.g., Milgram, Zimbardo.) Even while they keep their privacy, TSA agents should not be allowed to remain anonymous. Yet they have been conditioned, not least by the mainstream media, to expect that their socially unacceptable conduct will redound only on their employer, and not on them.

What if we were to change that, take a lesson from Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird, and called out the individual TSA screeners by name? Suppose that those of us who must fly were to get into the habit of, before politely opting out of the radiation machine, politely asking the screener's name, and then repeating it: "Sir, what's your name?" Joe Schmoe. "Mr. Schmoe, I'm opting out of being radiated." Might Mr. Schmoe, having been cut out from the mob and recognized as an individual, then stick a little closer to conduct that is socially acceptable?

It's worth a try. And if the implicit threat of improper conduct being subjected to public scrutiny doesn't work, you can get a little more explicit:

Step over here, sir. "Mr. Schmoe, before you begin, you should probably know that I'm going to publish a written account of our encounter here on the internet. I have no idea how it's going to turn out, but I know that I don't relish the idea of being touched by you. The worse it is, the more people will read about it. What you do here today, people will be reading about whenever they google your name for the rest of your life. Your mother will probably read it. If you're married, your kids will read it someday. If you're not married, prospective boyfriends or girlfriends will read it. Would you prefer that I just stepped through the magnetometer and forgot your name?"

I'm still not flying; try it, please, and tell me how it works. If you have a TSA story to tell and are willing to name the officer, I'll find the right place to publish it.

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