TSA: when the abnormal becomes normal

by Lisa Simeone on August 1, 2012


In December of 2011 I wrote a post here at TSA News laying out numerous facts and distilling certain principles of what might be called moral philosophy and human behavior. The facts — aviation history, risk assessment, statistical analysis, logic, empirical evidence — remain the facts, and I say now what I said then: most people will ignore them.

As for the moral philosophy part, that, of course, exists in the realm of theory and can be debated from now till kingdom come. What I said, in a nutshell, is that so-called “ordinary” people can be induced to do brutal things to other people. It doesn’t take great evil or a psychopathic personality. And slowly, over time, those brutal things start to become normal. Things that were once unthinkable become accepted, both by the people doing them and by those on the receiving end.

This slow habituation is often called conditioning, or grooming. It’s not a new concept, it’s not a difficult concept, and people have no problem understanding it in lots of situations.

But not, for some reason, as it pertains to the TSA.

Hanna Arendt famously referred to it as the “banality of evil” in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Recently, journalist and legal scholar Glenn Greenwald wrote a column called “Extremism normalized” with the subtitle, “How Americans are sufficiently trained to acquiesce to ideas once deemed so radical as to be unthinkable.”

If that’s not an accurate description of millions of people’s acquiescence to the crimes committed by the TSA, I don’t know what is. Although this particular column by Greenwald isn’t explicitly about the TSA, it is about bedrock civil liberties, which have everything to do with it. Greenwald has in the past written blistering denunciations of the TSA and of those who defend it. He’s done this repeatedly.

In the end, Greenwald is as pessimistic as I am. People are being conditioned, and they’re accepting — nay, embracing — that conditioning. I don’t know how else to put it but that they’re getting exactly what they asked for.

“I still would like to believe that what can change public thinking on such matters is having these measures finally start burdening a majority of Americans, rather than being confined to isolated, marginalized, demonized minorities. Human beings are self-interested, and unfortunate though it may be, it’s a fact of life that it’s difficult (though not impossible) to induce widespread public passion over injustices that aren’t affecting most people. If the growing anger over these TSA invasions helps change — or least moderate — how Americans think about Fear of Terrorism and Privacy as competing values, then at least some good will come of it. But it seems more likely that Americans will be just as supportive of future expansions of government power just as long as the Right People are targeted.”

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Inha Leex Hale)

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