My Excellent TSA Adventure

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In late September, I paid a visit to my sister in Santa Barbara. Having heard the horror stories about the ultra-vigilant guardians of our skies, I was leery about going through security. I hadn’t flown for two years, and thought the process might have gotten scarier. As I prepared to depart from Phoenix, however, things went without a hitch. Shoes off, all the contents of my pockets in a plastic container, arms over my head for a nudie shot (the only new, unpleasant feature) — all routine.

Sky Harbor is a huge airport. Tens of thousands of people pass through it daily, and everybody is too busy to hassle a vaguely Nordic-looking middle-aged lady. Nobody in his right mind would mistake me for a terrorist, but in any facility of such size, I would expect to encounter big government at its most oppressive. Santa Barbara’s airport, on the other hand, is small and rather quaint. Its sole terminal looks something like a high school building. I anticipated that my pass through security, on the way home, would be equally uneventful.

I could not have been more wrong. Evidently the TSA agents at tiny airports demand to be taken seriously. They aren’t going to let anybody think she’s dealing with Andy Taylor or Barney Fife.

As my sister stood and watched behind the barricade, a reassuring maternal presence seeing me off, I presented my boarding pass and picture I.D. I don’t drive, so the state of Arizona has issued me an all-purpose identification card. The agent squinted at it as if it were written in Chinese. He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

They informed me that the card displayed no expiration date. I informed them that this was a general identification card, not a driver’s license, and that my identity wouldn’t expire. I wasn’t aware the TSA had made it a rule that only drivers could fly. I didn’t come right out and say this, of course. Barney Fifes never tolerate so much as a peep of impertinence.

My sister stepped around to the side of the barricade. For a moment, I wondered if she was going to step over it. She had plenty to say. “It was good enough to get her here,” I specifically remember her telling the agents. “I don’t know why it shouldn’t be good enough to get her home.”

They looked peeved. They couldn’t keep her from flying, because she wasn’t going anywhere. Nor did they offer any reason to reject her argument. But they kept on brooding over the card.

He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

Agent Number Two took it over to a different station and called someone on the phone. He came back, gave me my card, made some officious little squiggles on my boarding pass and waved me through. My sister and I were relieved. I would not be relegated to non-personhood.

I assume the agent called Arizona and verified that this was indeed a state-issued ID. I was not aware, before this incident, that non-drivers presented any greater threat to airline security than, say, terrorists who drive themselves to airports. Evidently, however, the very fact that we don’t drive means we are shady characters. Perhaps it is petty for me to raise this question, but is every adult who doesn’t drive now potentially subject to such a hassle before being permitted to board a flight?

What is it, specifically, that casts a shadow over us? Is it that, in this small way, we don’t conform to the norm? Is it that our form of identification requires TSA personnel to think? I’ve put these questions to a number of my friends. Their response has been that I, like a typical libertarian, enjoy nitpicking about government oppression. That I find it under every rock.

I suppose I do get testier about authoritarian silliness than a lot of people might. But surely there’s no harm in asking the questions. In retrospect, it bothers me less that the incident happened than that I felt I didn’t dare ask these questions to the agents at the airport. At one time I would have, but now — as if by animal instinct — I’d be afraid to.

What is happening to us, as a country? As a people raised to presume ourselves free from such cringe-inducing intimidation? This is the question that haunts me. Though what happened to me amounted to no more than a minor irritant, I must admit that I was genuinely afraid. My guts knotted up within me in a way to which I’m unaccustomed.

Would a terrorist feel that sort of fear in that sort of a situation? Or is the procedure designed primarily to intimidate law-abiding citizens like me? I don’t want to become accustomed to that feeling. I wonder if eventually it will, for all of us, become routine.




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Why is Rand Focusing on the Drones?

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I am of course just delighted to see that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had the moxie to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire regarding their possible use of drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. I mean, it is amazing that the mainstream media aren’t the least bit interested about the matter — after all, if this had been contemplated by Bush and Cheney, the media would have become apoplectic.

But Rand might want to talk about what is going on over at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS has taken some curious steps, indeed. First, as Ralph Benko of Forbes notes, the DHS is buying — get this! — 1.6 billion rounds of ammo, much of it hollow-point rounds. Putting aside the fact that hollow point bullets are forbidden by international law of war (I guess it’s OK to use them on your own citizens!), 1.6 billion rounds is a huge amount of ammo. At the height of the Iraq war, Benko notes, the military was using only 6 million rounds monthly. So the DHS is buying enough ammunition for a 20 year domestic war.

But wait — it just gets better. The DHS is also buying and retro-fitting, for street use, armored vehicles — “Mine Resistant Protected” MaxxPro MRAP vehicles, to be exact. These puppies are armed with machine guns, and are equipped to withstand IED and land mine blasts, as well as machine gun fire.

How many of the new toys is DHS buying? One report puts it at over 2,700 of them!

Meanwhile, the agency is apparently going to spend $50 million on spiffy new uniforms.

This, by the way, is the same DHS that is crying piteously that it cannot handle a 2% cut in funding, and is releasing hundreds of illegal aliens charged with crimes because it is so very cash-strapped.

This all warrants some congressional scrutiny, one would think — since it gets so little from the established media.

This all warrants some congressional scrutiny, one would think




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Social Security Guns Up

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A fascinating little article suggests that despite the rosy assurances of the Obama administration that Social Security is in fine shape, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is preparing for civil unrest.

The article reports that the SSA just purchased 174,000 rounds of ammo — and not just any ammo, but real ’boon-stopping hollow-point bullets (you know, the ones that expand when they hit you, tearing apart your internal organs). The ammo will be distributed to 41 SSA offices around the country. All this ammunition, by the bye, is for .357 semi-automatic handguns, quite formidable pieces for such an anti-gun administration.

Oh, wait — I forgot. Anti-gun progressive liberals only oppose citizens owning guns, not governments.

But the SSA's armaments are nothing compared to those of Homeland Security, which earlier this year bought 450 million rounds of .40 caliber hollow point ammo, on top of 750 million rounds of other calibers.

I have suggested often before in these pages that the Social Security system is unsustainable in its current form, and will be more or less insolvent in about a decade. It is already running a deficit, “covered” only by the fraudulent “trust fund,” which is just a pack of federal IOUs.

At that point, one of five “solutions” will be employed. Benefits could be dropped by about a fourth for all recipients. Or benefits could be “means-tested,” meaning that anybody who is well enough off not to “need” Social Security would just be denied it, despite having paid into the Ponzi scheme for decades. Or the government could print money and debase the currency, causing inflation (which is a kind of universal tax). Or 401k and other private retirement accounts could be “nationalized,” i.e., seized and used to shore up the Social Security system (as happened not long ago in Argentina). Or SSA taxes could be jacked up on all income levels.

Each of these outcomes would make some group, or the whole country, very angry.

Hence the hollow point ammo. Gut-shoot granny with hollow-point bullets when she storms the local SSA office, pissed off because her promised retirement support hasn’t materialized . . .




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Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

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In Katherine Mansfield’s one-act play Trifles, trifling evidence such as a reticent personality, a half-cleaned table, a broken birdcage, and a canary with a broken neck lead the audience to conclude that a woman has murdered her husband. Motive and opportunity. That’s all it takes to find her guilty in the eyes of her peers. The play is written with a delicious sense of irony and poetic justice. My students at Sing Sing don’t buy it, however. “That’s just circumstantial evidence!” they complain. “You can’t convict on that!”

They’re right, of course. Motive and opportunity — and sometimes opportunity alone — once led to a vigilante justice system that culminated in countless lynchings in our nation’s history. Compounded by a healthy dose of police-induced false witness, it continues to lead to wrongful incarcerations today.

Motive, opportunity, and false — or at least unsubstantiated — witness lie at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s new film, J. Edgar. Eastwood has created a kind of wrongful incarceration inside a film that will stand as an unending sentence. Instead of relying on what is known about J. Edgar Hoover’s public life, Eastwood chose to focus on the very private life that was always hinted at but never confirmed. Books have been written about Hoover, but the conclusive evidence is missing. Even Eastwood acknowledges in this film that Hoover’s official biography may have been full of inaccuracies. The people who might have known the facts are dead, and the famous confidential files that Hoover collected over the years no longer exist. Writers can speculate about their contents, and they have. In print. But no one actually knows.

Hoover’s greatest legacy was his insistence on using evidence-based science to investigate crime. He recognized, for example, the value of using fingerprints, ballistics, and marked money to identify criminals. If he were alive today, he would cheer the use of DNA evidence. His was a bureau of investigation first and foremost.

“J. Edgar” ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

His not-so-great legacy was his willingness to trample constitutional rights in his march to justice. He was determined to protect America from political subversives, kidnappers, and organized crime rings. To do this he needed to create a public outcry that would (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) make additional security seem worth the cost of essential liberty. Several early scenes in J. Edgar emphasize Hoover’s disregard for constitutional rights. Again, if he were alive today, he would probably be at the forefront of Homeland Security and the TSA.

With Eastwood as director, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor, and the most influential law enforcement leader of the 20th century as its subject, J. Edgar, which opened this weekend, ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

Much of the creepiness comes from the way Eastwood portrays Hoover's relationships with his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Fighting crime gets short shrift in this film that focuses on speculations about Hoover's private life. Eastwood pays very little attention to Hoover’s work in the Bureau, except to show how Hoover manipulated public opinion about crime to federalize the FBI and expand his power.

Arrests of notorious criminals in the 1930s are presented as photo ops for Hoover. The Kennedy assassination is mentioned, but receives less than two minutes of screen time. The Lindbergh kidnapping weaves throughout the plot, mostly to demonstrate Hoover’s conflict with states’ rights, but the tone regarding the kidnapping is strangely detached and unemotional. Even the bombing of private homes by anti-American groups in 1919 is presented as an exercise of free speech.

But what of the private life on which this film dwells? Much of what is “known” about Hoover’s private life is based on hearsay and innuendo, motive and opportunity. The film is unable to settle on a clear point of view. Was Hoover a homosexual? Possibly. He never married. He had a close relationship with Tolson, who also never married. But Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, never married either. Does that make her a homosexual as well? Or simply a woman dedicated to her job, as Hoover always claimed to be?

And why should his private relationships matter, anyway? My biggest concern about this film is that, after deciding to establish that Hoover and Tolson were lovers, Eastwood pulls back, suggesting that they weren’t lovers after all. He presents their relationship as awkward, creepy, and heartless. There are plenty of scenes to suggest homosexuality: Tolson significantly passes a white hanky to Hoover at their first meeting (an anachronistic reference to a code that seems to have developed in the early 1970s); they hold hands in the back seat of a car; Tolson tells Hoover, “I want us always to have lunch and dinner together,” almost like a fianc√© setting down the rules. And yet, when Tolson kisses Hoover, at the culmination of a physical fight reminiscent of those awful 1950s movies when a man would often slap a woman into erotic submission, Hoover responds furiously, “Don’t ever do that again!” What gives? Either they are seeing each other romantically or they are not. I think Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

Even creepier is Hoover’s relationship with his mother. Hoover's father is portrayed as suffering from psychotic paranoia. His mother is domineering and flirtatiously predatory. She parades her new gowns for him, dances with him, buys a diamond ring for him. He is controlled by her and obsessed with her. Judi Dench is at her best in this role, and if this were a fictional film about fictional characters, I would say bravo. Chances are that having a mother like that would indeed lead to psychosexual deviance. But the problem here is that Eastwood is portraying as fact scenes that can only be speculative. And he is suggesting that homosexuality is a psychosexual deviation.

Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

An additional source of creepiness is in the prosthetic makeup used to age the characters as the plot moves back and forth between the 1970s and the 1930s. Armie Hammer, in particular, looks like he is dressed as an alien for Halloween, or for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The prosthetic material does not move like skin, and the liver spots that dot his forehead and face are hideous. Hammer is so handsome and debonair as the young Tolson that it comes as a shock each time his character moves into the 1970s.

Much has been written about Hoover’s secret life, and rumors have entered the realm of “everybody knows.” But secrets are just that: secrets. Hoover's confidential file is legendary, in the true sense of that word, but no one knows what was actually in them, because all the files were destroyed by Helen Gandy as soon as he died. But this lack of concrete evidence has not prevented authors, journalists, and filmmakers from speculating on their content.

It is an understatement to call J. Edgar Hoover a complex man. He was a fierce patriot who saw nothing wrong with deporting naturalized citizens exercising freedom of speech. He was a crime-fighter who broke laws to fight crime. He is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little in order to protect your country.” He was a man with an enormous ego fed, perhaps, by private demons. He may have been a hypocrite who vilified homosexuals while engaging in homosexual acts himself. But to quote my Sing Sing students, that’s all circumstantial evidence. The only people who actually know the truth are dead. Eastwood’s film convicts J. Edgar by demonstrating a possible motive and a definite opportunity, fueled by probable false witness. In the process he has created a film that is homophobic itself.

At 137 minutes, J. Edgar is long. It isn’t suspenseful. It isn’t interesting. And it isn’t reliable. If you want to see a film that presents a more reasoned, though still critical, portrait of Hoover, I suggest you rent Public Enemies (2009) instead.


Editor's Note: Review of "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2011, 137 minutes.



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