TSA Pre-Check: Move Along, Citizen

by Mark Wilson

Here’s a ready example of classism in the United States in 2012: airlines. Have you ever missed a flight and tried to book a standby seat on the next flight? Your place in the line is one factor they take into account when deciding if they can book you. But a much more important factor is the number of miles you have with that airline.

Ethan Zuckerman talks about the TSA’s Pre-Check program and how it uses classism to ensure that the TSA’s ridiculous security theatre will never change:

There are a variety of reasons to be discomfited by Pre-√. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader notes that splitting the security experience into a smooth one for frequent travelers and a harsh one for infrequent fliers suggests that we’re unlikely to loosen travel restrictions across the board. Frequent fliers are the people most likely to complain about TSA procedures and push for reform, and if they’re accommodated separately, political pressure to reduce security theatre is lessened. “The only thing that has developed tolerance for this mass nonsense that is going on at the T.S.A. checkpoints is that everybody is supposed to be exposed to it…. Once that is shattered there is going to be a lot of resentment among those who watch others zip through while we wait and nudge forward and get shouted at to take our shoes off.”

He’s right, which is probably why the two Pre-√ lines I’ve been through are physically separated from the normal TSA screening area – I know I’m getting the light treatment, but the infrequent travelers don’t, and the security theatre is for them, after all. So long as I’m treated well, I have no incentive to lobby for change, and if the infrequent fliers can’t see my experience, they won’t know how arbitrary and unnecessary the procedures they’re going through are. Long security lines could be a source of solidarity, but we lose that possibility when frequent travelers get special privileges. Writing in Salon, Michael Lind takes this argument to an extreme, suggesting that frequent fliers clubs are a way of privileging the rich and reflect the deep inequalities of our society. “Why don’t we just make the new class-based discrimination official? Instead of leaving it to airlines and other corporations to construct the new apartheid piecemeal and informally, let the government issue a Premium Elite Citizen Card, valid for multiple purposes.” I’m far from convinced that treating your most frequent customers well by letting them board an airplane first constitutes apartheid, but I’d agree that blurring a line between a status offered by an airline for frequent passengers to a status that gives you a different experience with a government agency, the TSA, is complicated and uncomfortable.

That’s great, and worth repeating: “So long as I’m treated well, I have no incentive to lobby for change, and if the infrequent fliers can’t see my experience, they won’t know how arbitrary and unnecessary the procedures they’re going through are.” This is why young, middle-class types in China aren’t more interested in liberalizing the place: throw them a job and some creature comforts and why should they care about free speech?

Yes, there are more important things in the world to care about than how long the security line is at the airport. But this phenomenon is indicative of a few trends in the United States:

  1. If you pay more, then rules apply less to you, or not at all. This was how the Clear program worked and it shows how tenuous the “security” argument is. Extrapolate this to other contexts and you can see a pattern: Leandro Andrade gets 25 years to life for shoplifting four videotapes from a K-Mart, but no one on Wall Street receives any type of punishment for destroying millions of jobs and trillions of dollars.
  2. As a corollary to (1), consider that if the rules do apply to you, then use your money to convince the legislature that they shouldn’t. See also Mitt Romney.
  3. With Pre-Check, a background check is being conducted on you to ensure that you’re not going to blow up the plane. Is that really necessary? Sacrificing privacy for convenience is becoming normalized in this country, to the point where advocates of national ID cards are correct when they observe that, if the argument against national IDs is the fear of the government amassing a database of information on every citizen, one need only refute that argument by looking to the quantity of information private companies already possess about us.