If you believe freedom of expression extends to mocking TSA’s paranoia, you have not flown lately. On August 18th Arijit Guha was barred from a Delta flight from Buffalo to Phoenix because of a t-shirt.
This is a new twist on a phenomenon Care2 bloggers have addressed before. The Transportation Security Administration has disabled insulin pumps, barred breast milk pumps, confiscated a cupcake because of its frosting, put a toddler and a student on a “no fly” list, and stopped blacks and Hispanics because they fit racist stereotypes.
As Arijit details on a blog, now a t-shirt can get you banned from a flight. A pilot may be the one who makes the call. He and his wife attended a family funeral.
On the way back, they flew through Atlanta without incident. Things changed in Buffalo, when a Delta supervisor told Arijit he was making passengers and employees “very uncomfortable” with his satiric t-shirt’s TSA logo and message about “ZOMG Terrorists.” (Cory Doctorow designed it and made it available via Creative Commons.)
Although initially cleared to fly, and willing to change shirts, he was ordered to wait until all other passengers boarded. He says the pilot decided he did not want him on the plane, so Arijit and his wife were refused boarding. The ordeal continued as transit police kept up the questioning until the couple missed the last flight of the day.
After a long drive to spend the night with relatives and an early morning return to the airport, they finally caught a flight home. Although Arijit says the lead TSA agent treated them with the respect, he called the transit police “thuggish brutes.”
Next: What Does It All Mean?
A warning on the shirtwoot! site says, “Don’t wear this shirt to: an airport security checkpoint, or anywhere near a secure federal installation.” Arijit had to have been aware the combination of his brown skin and the t-shirt’s message would trigger racist paranoia and TSA over-reaction. He was likely fed up with both. Contemplating the meaning of the episode, he writes:
There are certainly some reasonable questions one can ask of this entire incident. As a friend asked via Twitter: where should we draw the line when it comes to what people can and can’t say in airports and what counts as “crying fire in a theater” territory?
The distinction I would make is the same one that was made by the Supreme Court in Cohen vs. California (h/t Matthew Davis for reminding me of this case in a comment on my Storify account of this incident). In that case, the majority of justices were willing to distinguish between speech and conduct. I was doing nothing more than wearing a shirt that poked fun at our national willingness to give up our freedoms in the face of fear. A satirical t-shirt doesn’t constitute a threat, and the TSA officers who interrogated me conceded as much. My shirt was speech, not conduct.
So far mainstream media have ignored Arijit’s story, though it has been picked up by numerous blogs. He is not the first to question homeland security’s intrusions into personal freedoms nor the public’s willingness to endure the erosion of civil rights. In “Smoke Screening”, published in the December 20, 2011 Vanity Fair, Charles C. Mann wrote of the $1.1 trillion the U.S. has spent on anti-terrorist measures:
To a large number of security analysts, this expenditure makes no sense. The vast cost is not worth the infinitesimal benefit. Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what [cryptographer and security technologist Bruce] Schneier mocks as “security theater”: actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the United States less safe.
When Arijit wore the t-shirt on his flights, he must have known it could set off the security machine. On the other hand, that machine will keep rolling over civil rights until enough people stand up to it to grind it to a halt.
Until that happens, travelers can expect more of the current anti-terrorist measures Mann characterizes as, “So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest.”
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Graphic by Cary Doctorow via Creative Commons; photo from Thinkstock