Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article, followed by well over 200 comments, on the use of behavior observation to screen airline passengers.  Security personnel observe body language, facial expressions, and general signs of anxiety to single people out for further interview and search.  Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has devoted his life work to decoding facial expression and non-verbal communication, helped the TSA design this program. As I understand it, Ekman’s work has successfully linked facial movements and expressions and other non-verbal cues to precise emotions and behaviors such as lying, but has not made any connection between these non-verbal cues and subsequent behaviors or actions.  As far as I know, no studies have been done linking body language, particularly the body language of travelers or persons under stress, to subsequent behavior of any kind. 

Therefore, it seems that the basic premise behind this program is that if a person’s body language says that he is nervous or afraid, his nervousness or fear alone indicates he is a possible terrorist and worthy of further scrutiny. Numerous commentators on this article pointed out something that anyone who has traveled quite a bit already knows—that travel itself is stressful and, for some, frightening.  Many people look anxious and unhappy at airports, mostly due to the generally-acknowledged stresses and discomforts of traveling, compounded these days by security screening–necessary, yes, but sometimes extremely aggravating.  Add to this the fact that you KNOW that you’re being scrutinized as you wait in line, juggling your passport, your ticket, your bag, your shoes, and your child, and you become one anxious, harried, and highly self-conscious person to boot. (Or you are the rare person who behaves like “patience on a monument,” who, thanks to your superior character, escapes interrogation.  You are the person, who, when searched, thanks the security official for so thoroughly protecting you.  You smile broadly at him.  You are, you think proudly to yourself, not a “whiner”). 

I would argue that this program also promotes a class-based form of scrutiny.  The well-heeled business traveler, who arrived at the airport in a taxi or limo, handed his bag to a skycap, stood in line not for a second before boarding, and downed a very fine Scotch whiskey before walking through security, will more likely pass through wearing the expression of the just and righteous, and, given his status, will more likely be waved through any way, even if he doesn’t. 

Other commentators pointed out the culturally biased nature of non-verbal cues.  Well, Ekman claims that the cues he has identified are universal, sort of hard-wired into the brains of those of the human species, untainted by cultural and ethnic social norms.  Just as German-raised and Italian-raised dogs (or Rottweilers and Neapolitan Mastiffs, if you like) both wag their tails when they’re happy, so do German and Italian people both raise their eyebrows when frightened.  Fine, but we still have the image of the fidgeting German or Italian man at the airport, fidgeting because he is naturally impatient and antsy, being observed by a highly-trained individual and determined to be, well, fidgety and antsy, and thus being singled out for additional search and delay. Doesn’t seem very scientific to me, or very effective.  Perhaps a fidgeting young Arab man flying from London to Washington should be singled out?  Some would say that this is racial profiling and some would say that it’s just common sense.  But the real problem with singling any person out, as noted by some commentators, is that it addresses the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. 

Why do people want to blow up British airplanes, en route to America and full of mostly Anglos and Americans?  Why don’t they want to blow up planes flying from, let’s say, Oslo to Zurich filled with mostly Norwegians, Swiss, and sundry other more neutral Europeans?  Well, it’s fair to say that the people intent on blowing up planes have “issues” with Americans and Anglos, valid or invalid, far beyond “they hate us for our freedom.”  Maybe we need a government that is willing to study the nature of terrorist anti-Americanism and the forces that have shaped this phenomenon.  Maybe we need a government that is willing, not only to study this phenomenon, but to shape policy designed to address it and deal with it in a broader fashion. 

Add to this the fact that all of these elaborate security screening mechanisms cause the stressed to be further stressed, the discomfited to be further discomfited, and the harassed to be further harassed.  The indignity of being searched will be amplified by the indignity of being singled out (as in the kindergarten from hell), for a frown, twitch, smirk, or nervous giggle.  The sanctity of the individual and his individual space (an illusion, yes, but a necessary one), will be further violated.  Our free movement through public space will be further restricted, and those who would make war with us will have won the small battle.  The fear that is manipulated so skillfully by the Republicans will be reinforced by elaborate procedures that tell us (non-verbally, I might add) that we have reason to be afraid. 

Add further that Americans are, statistically, more  likely to die in a car accident than die in a plane blown up by a terrorist, even if they travel frequently.  As one vehement post, written by an Arab-American man who is tired of being pulled aside, put it: “you are 500 times more likely to die in a car accident — why don’t you start ‘profiling’ the three big ugly SUVs sitting in your big ugly suburban garage?”  Profiling a bit himself there, isn’t he, but, alas, is correct.   


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