Was Opting Out a Bust?

Many people oppose the full-body scans now available at every airport, courtesy of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). There’s a lot to object to: inconvenience, cost, radiation, inefficiency, delays, embarrassment.

There are individual remedies available: don’t fly; opt for a pat-down instead.  Neither, admittedly imperfect, approach does anything to stop the TSA from subjecting other travelers to the same scrutiny.

Activists want to do more.  Yesterday, screening opponents hoped to expose the costs of the policy; using the virtual communication networks we hear so much about, they urged air travelers to opt for the pat-down, slowing the long security lines, and maybe leaving some passengers on the wrong side of the security check-points when their flights took off.  Most reports describe National Opt-Out Day as a massive disappointment, which created no visible disruption in the long lines on an always awful day to fly.

The idea is one with a long history in protest politics: raise the costs and visibility of unwanted policies; make it harder for your opponents to do what they want to do by refusing to cooperate.  This will, ideally, make the issue more salient, polarize and mobilize audiences, and encourage your opponent to back down.  Basically, this is the template pattern of strikes and boycotts, and even many civil disobedience efforts.

How many people would have had to opt out to create enough chaos to polarize the debate?  Probably not all that many; the lines are already long and people are already irritated.  Activists could claim credit for people who refused the scan for reasons of propriety rather than principle.  (Getting travelers to pass through the scanners wearing metal badges with anti-scanning slogans might have created far more disruption, and made it easier for the activists to claim credit.)

However many people needed to opt out, the campaign generated a smaller number.  Of course, the TSA put more screeners and friskers on duty (but this would happen on the day before Thanksgiving anyway).  Oddly, somehow air travel went at least as smoothly as it normally does on this day.

What went wrong?  The only people who could participate in the opt-out are those who already opted in, buying tickets and planning to stand in lines.  Those who wanted to protest the scan procedure but were already near their Thanksgiving destination, without air tickets, couldn’t get close enough to the lines or the scanners to disrupt them.  Those in lines, who had bought (expensive) tickets, knew they were risking disrupting their own travel plans, as well as those of everyone else in line.  Missing a flight on the day before Thanksgiving means taking the risk that you won’t get to Grandmother’s house.  (I suspect many of those who viewed that outcome as acceptable–or even attractive–didn’t buy tickets in the first place.)

That most Americans apparently support the screening wouldn’t stop the anti-scanners from staging a more effective protest.  It’s important to remember that many movements we now admire created a great deal of disruption and inspired activists to take much greater risks when they didn’t have majority support (think civil rights).  More significantly, activists would have to organize the truly committed to pick spots where their numbers could make a difference.  Airport lines everywhere is a tough hill to climb.

Meanwhile, the activists claim victory:

THANK YOU for making National Opt Out Day a success!

Despite claims to the contrary, National Opt-Out Day was a rousing success.  The entire point of the campaign was to raise awareness of the issues of privacy and aviation safety at TSA checkpoints, with the ultimate goal of influencing policy – to ask the question “are we really doing this right?”  In that, the campaign was a success.  It was always about getting attention to the issue, educating the public and putting pressure on to change the current procedures.  With near daily headlines on the front page of newspapers and debates on television and radio news, the mission was accomplished – our voice was heard.  By the time November 24 rolled around policy change had already been set in motion.

The argument: threat of disruption brought attention to the policy and led the government to move toward reform.  I’m not convinced, are you?

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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