Sara Robinson has worked as an editor or columnist for several national magazines, on beats as varied as sports, travel, and the Olympics; and has contributed to over 80 computer games for EA, Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other companies. A native of California's High Sierra, she spent 20 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Vancouver, BC in 2004. Her lifelong interest in the social effects of authoritarianism have most recently led her to pursue the MS in Futures Studies at the University of Houston. She's also a student member of the Association of Professional Futurists, and member of the Accelerated Studies Foundation advisory board on social and cultural issues. For fun, she raises kids and travels. You can reach her at email@example.com.
As a former Olympics reporter, I gotta say: it's damned hard to picture an Olympiad that's not wrapped from top to bottom in acres of international flags. According to the article, though, even flying the Olympic rings for three weeks would probably be illegal under the current law.
I wonder if anyone's told the IOC site selection committee about this yet?
Back to the Back of the Bus by Sara Robinson
The biggest shock of the new millennium is this:
The battles we thought were won long ago are still with us.
Tunnels and Bridges, Part I: Divide and Conquer Friday, August 25, 2006 by Sara Robinson
America's founders understood all too well that would-be authoritarians would always be among us; and that holding on to our democracy would involve a constant struggle against their ongoing efforts to control us. That's what Ben Franklin was talking about when he said that we have "a republic -- if you can keep it." And what Tom Jefferson was alluding to when he told us that "the tree of liberty must be watered occasionally with the blood of tyrants and patriots." They knew that democracies are not established once, but re-created continuously as each generation reasserts its freedom against fresh generations of would-be rulers. It's an ongoing conversation about liberty, equality, and power that's re-negotiated – sometimes more peacefully, sometimes less -- every day.
They also knew that our homegrown wannabe kings and dictators have momentum on their side. High-social-dominance (SDO) authoritarian leaders are always among us, always pushing, always scheming, always looking for their next chance. There is no opportunity to take control, legally or illegally, that they won't fail to exploit, as long as the gains promise to outweigh the costs. As Edmund Burke did not say (but usually gets the attribution for anyway): all that's required for them to succeed in this endless quest for power is for the rest of us to do nothing.
Unfortunately, the ease and confidence of living in a prosperous society under a strong Constitution makes kicking back and doing nothing a very easy, attractive option. You can be blithely oblivious to these guys for years -- until the day comes when you've got a fundamentalist school board trying to teach your kids young-earth creationism; or militia guys jackbooting up Main Street at noon and performing blitz redecorating on the local synagogue at midnight; or a born-again president trying to bring on Armageddon for the profit of the oil companies and the acclaim of his Rapture-minded followers. On that day, we're jolted out of our reverie. Where did all these wackadoodles come from? Of course, they came from us -- because we didn't take seriously the threat they pose to the continued existence of our democracy, or our constant obligation to keep an eye out for the authoritarians in our midst, and take steps to prevent them from amassing followers and power in the first place.
In this next extension of the "Cracks In The Wall" series, I'd like to expand on the strategies outlined in Part III, and show how they might be applied in larger spheres – at the community and national level. What works to bring individuals back from right-wing fantasyland may also work to open large tunnels in the Wall, and build bridges over which the softer core of followers can make a safe return to the reality-based world.
An Authoritarian Taxonomy Our discussion so far has looked at three different classes of authoritarians. I'd like to start with a quick review of these three groups, and the things that motivate them.
First, there are the high-social-dominance leaders, whose primary goal is to amass and expand their social dominance over others. To this end, they are dominating, overtly or covertly opposed to equality, focused on power to the exclusion of other concerns, and usually quite amoral. Rules don't apply to these guys (and they are almost always guys); they'll do whatever they think they can get away with to get what they want. Since it's extremely rare for someone with a high social dominance orientation (SDO) to ever really change, our only option is to isolate them.
Second, there are committed “hard-core” right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers. These people were usually raised in authoritarian homes, or have spent so many adult years in the system that there's not a lot of hope that they'll ever be capable of operating outside of it. Some of these people do leave, eventually; but these are flukes at best. Generally, it's best not expect that they'll have too much interest in moving to our side of the wall.
Then, there's the third and largest group: “soft-core” RWA followers who probably came to authoritarianism during an episode of major life stress, or were seduced into it with heavy propaganda from friends and right-wing media. This group may form as much as half of the current authoritarian voter pool in America. These people usually weren't always authoritarians; and they're the ones we have the greatest hope of bringing back around to a full embrace of democratic principles.
Effective bridge-building begins with being clear about which of these three groups you're addressing, because the strategies and messages are very different for each.
Leaders: Identify and Isolate My experience has been that we non-authoritarians -- especially more progressive ones -- tend to discount the central role leaders in authoritarian organizations. Generally (and especially compared to RWAs), we don't pay a lot of heed to authority in our lives. When we do encounter it, we take its measure, reckon its limits, and give it only the required level of credence and respect.
This loose approach to authority can lead us to underestimate the overweening power authoritarian leaders exercise within their organizations. If we're going to be effective, we need to understand their importance, develop radar that picks out these high-SDO personalities quickly and accurately, and understands the subtleties of how they're operating. Books like Dean's are a great basic education.
Get Out Your Shovel -- Once the leaders are identified, they need to be isolated. The best way to do this is to discredit them in the eyes of both the public and their followers. For that, you need dirt.
Fortunately, these guys seem to move more dirt than the Mississippi. The tediously predictable amorality of high-SDO authoritarian leaders means they've got piles of bones buried in their back yards -- many of which can be dug up with surprisingly little effort, especially in these days of electronic public records and global Web access.
Faithful Orcinus readers have seen this in action, as Dave regularly dredges up all kinds of pungent dirt on extremist leaders in various movements. Part of this is that, as an old reporter in the field, he's got a long memory and a tracker's knowledge of the terrain, and thus knows exactly where to pitch his shovel. But another part is that there's so much dirt that you don't always have to be skilled or lucky to find it. They really don't care about which laws get broken, where the money went, or who got hurt by their actions. Their future destruction can usually be found -- quite readily -- in their pasts. If you're even halfway lucky, you may even find a disillusioned and betrayed former follower or two who, for the price of a beer, would love to get a few fascinating stories off their chests. If you're looking for a trail, just follow the line of burned bridges behind them.
Once the leader's history of spousal assault is on the front page, or he's frog-marched into court on fraud charges, the followers evaporate like seawater on a hot day. Note that this applies to right-wing leaders at all levels: it's how scores of communities have put a stop to small racist thug groups; over time, it's also the way the entire Bush Administration is slowly being discredited.
Sandbox 101 -- Another way to isolate high-SDO leaders is to leverage their propensity for schism. If the movement has multiple leaders, look for the tension between them – and leverage it.
The greatest miracle of the Republican rise over the past three decades is the extraordinarily high level of cooperation the movement was able to get from so many high-SDO leaders. Most authoritarian leaders (literally) flunked Sandbox 101 in preschool: they don't like to share, and they only cooperate when the shared goals are compelling. Alliances between them only last as long as all parties are convinced that there's personal power to be gained by staying. As soon as that equation changes, they're instantly out shopping for a better deal.
The conservative takeover succeeded because of the sweeping scale of the goal: national, if not global domination. That's perhaps the only goal high-SDOs would regard as worth putting in a long-term cooperative effort for. Everyone involved understood the stakes -- and knew that they'd only get there if they set aside personal issues and stuck together for as long as it took. But, once the goal is within reach and it's time to discuss divvying up the spoils….ahh, that's when everyone's individual motives shoot back to the foreground -- and the follies really begin.
In most authoritarian groups, whether religious or political, schisms are so frequent as to be almost comic. Jealousy between leaders runs high, egos are prickly, tempers volatile, emotional intelligence not much in evidence. The more followers they get, the less stable alliances become. This internal instability is predictable -- and exploitable, in the hands of a smart opposition. (According to one experienced activist, if you've got good dirt on one leader, make sure it first gets into the hands of his most ambitious co-consipirator – then sit back and watch the fun begin.)
All we need to do is stick together better than they do. For some of us, that's not always easy; but victory belongs to the last team standing. Sometimes, with these guys, it's just a matter of waiting for their own hubris to finish the job for you.
Hard-Core Followers: Meet The New Boss The inner circle of right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers backing these leaders won't be impressed by your dirtpile, unless their guilt-evaporation mechanisms are totally on the fritz. If their leader has an incest conviction in his past, yeah, you may get their attention. Otherwise (as we've seen), they're already primed to forgive. It's a mistake to count on their outrage.
Once their leaders have been isolated and discredited, though, the hard-core followers usually just fade away quietly into the woodwork. However, be sure you get their names before they go: the odds are good that you'll see them again, years later, emerging under the banner of another charismatic leader. Longtime Orcinus readers are familiar with the ways in which militia leaders, for example, pop up over and over in different guises, different groups, and different areas of the country. Same old faces, same old story. They can't help themselves; they're just wired this way.
This is the group most likely to commit political violence. As these followers move away from their discredited leaders, it's especially important that strong community voices make it absolutely clear that aggression will not be tolerated -- and will be prosecuted, either in the court of law or the court of public opinion. In particular, they need to be told in no uncertain terms that, in the larger community, there is no such a thing as a righteous or acceptable violent act. We know who they are; we regard them as troublemakers; and they will not enjoy our support or mercy if they continue to create problems within our community.
Soft-Core Followers: Back Toward the Mainstream Unlike the hard core, the softer core of followers is far more likely to be sensitive to public embarrassment. In fact, being caught in fealty to a real low-life scoundrel can feel a lot like a betrayal to them. Their leader has exposed them to the jeers of their peers, and made them look personally ridiculous. For people who believe in their deepest hearts that they are more moral and righteous than others, the public and humiliating loss of moral authority within the community can lead to a moment of re-direction.
During that shift, many of them will be looking for stronger, more stable authority to lean on. Remember that RWA followers respond to legitimate authority -- and for most of the soft-care, that usually still includes the cops, courts, and clergy. It's critical to have these authorities standing by to provide the rules and structure these followers crave, and who can model constructive behavior.
We see this in small-town fundamentalist churches caught in pastor scandals. When the church disintegrates, some members move to other churches; but there's always a solid percentage that loses faith entirely. On a national scale, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have been losing listeners quarter over quarter since the news broke on their hillbilly heroin convictions and misplaced falafels, respectively. In all these cases, the followers who left were the ones “on the bubble,” with the strongest ties to the reality-based world. These are precisely the people we are most likely to welcome back over the Wall.
Looking at these three types in groups, and applying some of the lessons discussed earlier in the series, points us in some potentially useful directions when it comes to dealing with authoritarians at the local, regional, and national level. We'll look at some of those directions starting in the next part of this series.
Cracks In The Wall: The Segue by Sara Robinson
I've been working on the intended Part IV of the "Cracks In The Wall" series for over a week now. It has turned into a monster -- a thing of its own, with an intention of its own, which seems to be to become a series of its own. I've decided to stop fighting it, and let that happen. It was either that, or let the damn thing eat me.
So here we go. "Tunnels and Bridges -- Part I" will be up within the next hour or two. It's a broad look at some of the leverage points that will help us court and keep returning authoritarian followers, coming at the problem from a wide range of angles and drawing on the lessons learned in "Cracks In The Wall."
I hope you'll find it an interesting way to while away this last week until Dave gets back again.
That missing calf Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Sunday before last, while kayaking with my sister and my daughter along the western coast of San Juan Island, we encountered the combined J and K pods of the southern resident killer whales that ply those waters in the summer. (Some of the photos and sounds from that encounter are included in the little home movie I recently made.)
The most notable member of the pods was a young calf traveling with the K pod that was extraordinarily playful, particularly in the repeated breaches it performed in close proximity to a number of kayakers. (You can see it surfacing alongside the adult female on the right in the above photo.)
It breached twice about ten feet behind our kayak, too quickly for me to swing the camera around, but still giving Fiona her chief thrill of the trip. We then watched it perform four breaches in succession in front of a cluster of kayaks about 300 yards past us, including a number of google-eyed youngsters, so closely that it splashed them.
Two days later, on a trip into Roche Harbor, we read the front-page headline and photo in the Seattle Times: "Newborn orca has disappeared". Naturally, we were concerned that the calf we had just seen might be dead.
Then we read the story and discovered that it was all about merely this:
Researchers at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island were elated Sunday to see a newborn orca calf swimming with K pod in Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.
But Monday, researchers observed the K pod for hours and did not see the baby. Then Tuesday, none of the members of the pod were seen.
It is possible the calf is dead. About 40 percent of all orca calves do not survive their first year.
The baby could also be alive, but stranded by its family. "Then what do we do?" said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research.
Researchers at the center will continue to search for the calf.
Well, the problem with all this is that when the whales were sighted Monday, they were in serious transit mode, steaming southward at a heavy pace and fairly spread out, obviously headed out of Puget Sound and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the open Pacific. They do this periodically in the summer, especially between runs of salmon, and can disappear for nearly a week at a time (they did not reappear until Saturday).
The lack of a sighting for the calf did not necessarily mean anything; individuals often can be hard to spot in a single sighting, especially when they're spread out and moving steadily, as they were in this case. Disappearances are usually only confirmed after multiple sightings of the family group.
"The lost was found," said Ken Balcomb, veteran orca researcher at the Friday Harbor center. "It wasn't with its mom that day," he added of reports last week that the calf was missing and perhaps dead.
The state's three resident orca pods -- dubbed J, K and L -- were declared an endangered species last year, and the disappearance of the newborn that had boosted the population to 90 for the first time this century was painful news.
The calf -- whose orange newborn coat made it stand out among its black-and-white family -- was first spotted Aug. 13 in Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juans, where the orcas congregate over the summer to chase salmon. But then it was not seen for days.
"J, K and L pods have been pretty much together this (past) week when they've been seen," Balcomb said. "He didn't show up with any other pod."
There were a couple of possible sightings, but no documentation until Sunday.
"We have to go by a picture to be sure," he said.
"He's an adventurous little guy," an exuberant Balcomb said. "But he was there today, nice and tight" with the other orcas.
"He's moving around," the researcher added. "He'll surface way ahead of Mom. Very unusual for that small of a baby."
It's worth noting that, since K-41 is this young, it is unlikely to have been the calf that was breaching around us; they typically are not that active until later in their development.
Each of them, however, is specially precious because of the southern residents' endangered status; they represent the pods' fragile hopes for surviving into the next century. If one of them disappears, those hopes dwindle exponentially.
Still, this feels like a classic case of overreporting. While the calf's appearance and then non-appearance was certainly noteworthy, this wasn't a real story until its disappearance was officially confirmed.
Both the Times and the P-I have been significantly stepping up their coverage of killer whales this spring and summer, and for the most part, that's something of a welcome change. The state of the southern residents has been, if anything, underreported here in recent years, so the change in news judgment is long overdue (though one has to suspect that the likelihood orca pictures also sell lots of papers may be part of the shift).
But credibility, bred by perspective and informed restraint, is always an essential part of effective coverage. Misplayed stories like this, by fostering a "boy who cried wolf" effect, tend to undermine public awareness of the very real problems these orcas face.
Starring, of course, Michelle Malkin, as FBI agent Nellie MacFlynn, the tough-talking terrorist hunter who knows a threat when she sees one ...
Featuring the immortal line:
"I want these motherfucking Muslims off this motherfucking plane!!!"
Audience participation encouraged.
Coming soon to airports everywhere.
UPDATE: Via TBogg, right-wing bloggers are promoting exactly this concept. Seems LaShawn Barber wants the Samuel L. Jackson role.
Terror and hate Tuesday, August 22, 2006
May we have a round of applause, please, for the marvelous job Sara Robinson has done filling in here for the past week and a half? I'm especially taken with her series on "Cracks in the Wall," carries some of the discussion begun here -- identifying the pathology of the discrete conservative movement -- to its next logical step, to wit: How do we confront it effectively?
Of course, a "defense" of racial profiling was also ostensibly what Michelle Malkin's fraudulent history of the Japanese American internment was all about, too. As we saw then, holding up the internment episode as an example of racial profiling actually demonstrates, in stark fashion, what a monumental failure it actually is:
[E]ven beyond its transparent unjustness, the damage to the integrity of the Constitution, and the dangerous precedents it set, the internment of the Japanese-Americans was an unfathomable waste. It demonstrably undermined the war effort, and proved not to be worth a penny of the billions of taxpayer dollars it wasted.
In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the actual enterprise itself cost -- rounding up 120,000 people by rail car and shipping them first to “assembly centers”; building ten “relocation centers” in remote locales, and then shipping the evacuees into them; maintaining and administering the centers for another three years, which included overseeing programs to help internees find work outside the camps; feeding the entire population of internees during this time; and then helping them to relocate near their former homes once the camps closed -- there were millions more in initial reparations costs, and then hundreds of millions more in the later reparations approved by Congress in the 1980s
At the same time, the Japanese population on the Pacific Coast actually was responsible for the production of nearly half of all the fresh produce that was grown for consumption on the Coast (the Japanese also shipped out a great deal of produce to the Midwest and East). Indeed, Nikkei farms held virtual monopolies in a number of crops, including peas, green beans and strawberries, and a nearly 80 percent of the lettuce market.
When these farmers were rounded up and interned, a handful of enterprising whites decided to try running their farms with the hope of making a killing from the crops. But labor was so short that not one of these enterprises lasted beyond about five weeks, and none of them had a successful harvest. Nearly all of these farms lay fallow for the next four years. This major loss of production of fresh vegetables clearly harmed the national war effort, and played an important role in triggering the rationing that came during the war years.
When you look at the actual historical results of racial profiling, the conclusion by Canadian security officials that racial profiling is "fundamentally stupid" is really inescapable.
This is especially the case when you consider the chief strike against it, even beyond its sheer inefficacy: As a method of weeding out terrorists, it creates automatic blind spots that create more opportunities for terrorists to succeed. Once ethnic profiling is instituted, it becomes a much easier matter for terrorists to game the system. Not only is it grotesquely ineffective, it actually increases our vulnerability.
Terrorists -- the successful ones, anyway -- are smart. Once authorities begin profiling as a means of assessing security threats, they will respond by producing operatives who do not fit the profile. If Arabs and Muslims are the profile target, it is a relatively simple matter for them to identify, recruit, and employ operatives who are neither Arab nor Muslim.
When it comes to recognizing this aspect of the problem, most of the attention (particularly from the Malkin/LGF side of the blogosphere) has been on "white Muslims," whose presence in Al Qaeda cells has been recognized for some time. Somehow, it fails to cross their consciousnesses that their existence militates against racial profiling.
More to the point, there's another potential source of operatives who do not fit the profile: white supremacists.
After all, various neo-Nazis have at various times proclaimed their affinity with, and admiration for, the 9/11 terror attacks. They have also expressed at other times a wish to form alliances with Muslim terrorists, because their ends are so similar. Those coalitions have never, as far as we know, actually been formed, but racial profiling could provide Islamic radicals with even more incentive to do so.
Consider, for instance, the way that certain factions of white supremacists have been making overtures to Muslim radicals, most recently in Canada, as described in a Macleans piece by Nancy MacDonald:
Ontario MPP Kathleen Wynne's invitation to speak at the conference "Christians-Muslims Relationships in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective" came from a constituent she knew well. The event, hosted by the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, sounded promising. "I'm very interested in interfaith dialogue, between Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, all of us," says Wynne. She agreed to participate. Official invitations were sent out, with Wynne's name as well as that of keynote speaker William Baker. Then Wynne got a call tipping her off about Baker. He had written the anti-Israel book Theft of a Nation, and once chaired the U.S. Populist Party, which nominated former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke as its candidate in the 1988 presidential race. An occasional lecturer at the Crystal Cathedral -- the California mega-church from which televangelist Robert Schuller broadcasts the Hour of Power -- Baker resigned in 2002 after his neo-Nazi ties were publicized.
Wynne acted quickly. She refused to share the stage with Baker. He was dropped from the conference, to be held on July 16. Another Toronto event at which Baker was to speak this month -- the 18th Annual Islamic Dawah Conference -- appeared to follow suit.
Baker has been stepping up his visibility on the Muslim speaking circuit, and it's classic right-wing fearmongering, complete with anti-Semitic conspiracies:
In Toronto, Tarek Fatah, communications director for the Muslim Canadian Congress, was first to sound the alarm about Baker within his community. Fatah had heard Baker speak at a U.S. mosque and was "appalled." "It was the whole notion that there's a conspiracy against Muslims, and Muslims should face up," he says. He counts Baker among the pretenders who "act as though they're friends of the Muslim community, but come from the Christian right and use the community to propagate their own point of view."
Michael's book is provocative, but when all is said and done, it's abundantly clear that the convergence described in the title is mostly, to date, a potentiality and not a reality -- and I think Michael would agree with this assessment. There is a thorough analysis of David Duke's international recruitment work, particularly in the Muslim world. But so far there is little if any evidence of any operational convergence between far-right terrorists and Islamist radicals.
MacDonald interviewed Michael for the Macleans piece, and what he said was noteworthy:
In any case, George Michael, a professor with the University of Virginia's College at Wise who studies the convergence of militant Islam and the extreme right, sees greater cause for alarm elsewhere. Revisionist history has found an outlet in parts of the Middle East -- as have Klan proselytizers like Duke, who in 2002 presented a lecture in Bahrain on "Israeli Involvement in September 11." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has called the Holocaust "a myth." So has Muhammad Mehdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In March, Syrian President Bashar Assad told PBS, "If you ask many people in the region, they would say the West exaggerated the Holocaust."
Still, rhetoric aside, there's little to indicate any real operational alliances, says Mark Potok, intelligence director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, a watchdog that monitors organized hate. "When all is said and done, for American neo-Nazis, Muslims are, quote, 'mud people.' It's hard to get beyond that." At the end of the day, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. "Last night," says Kreis, "I spent two hours talking to a Palestinian, out of Canada, and yes, I'd invite him into my home." He pauses, then adds: "As long as he doesn't try to marry my daughter."
The possibility that Al Qaeda cells in Canada were recruiting white operatives in Canada arose during the recent spate of terror arrests there. White supremacists offer a special advantage: they can blend in, and they can be used somewhat disposably.
It's also worth remembering that there's a historical precedent for this: In the early 1940s, during the runup to the outbreak of war, Japan's diplomatic offices became centers of espionage activity, coordinating intelligence gathering and helping build a stateside network of spies. Many of these were Japanese nationals operating under diplomatic cover; but they also actively recruited a network of domestic spies.
This recruitment plan was uncovered in the so-called "MAGIC" decrypts -- diplomatic cables intercepted and decoded by American intelligence agencies -- which are often touted by revisionists like Malkin, rather groundlessly, as evidence of the propriety of the decision to evacuate and incarcerate Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast.
One of the "MAGIC" decrypts often cited by these revisionists actually prioritizes the recruitment effort by the Japanese agencies involved in a telling fashion: Highest on its list are African Americans; next come white supremacists, particularly William Dudley Pelley's Silvershirts. At the bottom of the list are Japanese Americans, who were in fact widely mistrusted as "traitors" by the militarists in Tokyo.
A few of these messages dealt with intelligence agents. Few Japanese names are mentioned: one is "Iwasaki," who "had been in touch with William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts, a fascist organization in the United States." Iwasaki was apparently an agent sent by Japan who returned home prior to December 7; he was not a permanent resident Issei.
Pelley and the Silvershirts, as I've explored in a broader context, represent a long historical strain in the fabric of the American right, particularly in their melding of religious fervor and racial hatredunder the rubric of politics, one that remains very much with us today.
The reality is, of course, that far-right extremists have always been, at heart, profoundly anti-American and deliberately opposed to democracy and equality -- genuinely traitors in our midst. It was true during World War II, and it remains true now.
Any kind of profiling that ignores their presence is innately useless.
Patriot Acts Monday, August 21, 2006 by Sara Robinson
From the London Daily Mail:
British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.
The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.
Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.
The incident fuels the row over airport security following the arrest of more than 20 people allegedly planning the suicide-bombing of transatlantic jets from the UK to America. It comes amid growing demands for passenger-profiling and selective security checks.
It also raised fears that more travellers will take the law into their own hands - effectively conducting their own 'passenger profiles'.
Let's see. A frightened mob selects a couple victims, accuses them of being would-be criminals without any evidence whatsoever, forcibly robs them of the cost of transcontinental airfare, and threatens anyone (pilots and airline personnel) that questions either their verdict or their right to exact "justice."
There's only one word for this. It's vigilantism, pure and simple. It's no different than any other kind of lynch mob. And it is beneath the dignity of a civilized society.
The reasons for and righteousness of the anger on display here are under furious discussion on both the left and right sides of the blogosphere. (See The Mahablog and Glenn Greenwald for two useful perspectives.)
But there's far more at stake here than meets the eye. If these vigilante mobs are allowed to get their way on airplanes, what's to stop them from taking their show on the road? Are we going to see subway mobs assaulting brown people on train platforms to "prevent" subway bombings? Are restarauters going to find themselves under pressure from upset diners not to hire -- or seat -- certain "frightening" classes of people? Will neighborhood groups press realtors to stop selling local homes to specific ethnic groups, for fear property values will drop? Or will they, perhaps, subject "undesirable" neighbors to harassment campaigns until they're forced to move on?
This all sounds far-fetched -- until you realize that we're hardly forty years past an era when most of this was standard operating procedure in much of America. Vigilante justice, racial segregation in public accommodations, real estate redlining, and sundown towns are part of a past that we've worked hard to leave behind. It will be a disgrace to all of us if we allow a few irrational bullies on airplanes put us on the road to bringing it all back.
Greater sanity is called for. The airlines need to start by stating, unequivocally, that they trust the decisions of their security staff on the ground. And even if they can't make that statement with a clear conscience, allowing vigilante mobs to intimidate their passengers and crews isn't the way to solve it. They are, after all, the ones paying for the Big Security Show down at the gates. Every time pilots allow the vigilantes to win, they undermine public confidence in that system.
But the buck really stops with the passengers. Which means those of us who fly frequently need to sit down and have a long chat with ourselves.
We know, without question, that bully squads bent on violence believe they're acting on the tacit values of the community. That motivation is certainly at work here -- and every time the mob succeeds, that belief is validated further. We also know that vigilantism stops when the larger community steps up and says, "No. You don't represent our values."
Today, I've been trying to imagine myself in this situation. Would I have the courage to speak up in support of the flight crew and the accused? What would I say? How much danger would I be in? Could I count on the better sense of my fellow passengers, and rely on them to support me? Or would I simply become a target myself? And, if that happened, could I handle the consequences?
You never know the answers to these kinds of questions until you're standing in that moment, of course. But a little role-playing now -- thinking through the most effective choices of word and action, deciding how much I'd be willing to risk -- might come in handy somewhere down the runway. At the very least, I could see myself saying: You put them off this plane, and I'll be staying, too. And I'd invite everyone who believes in equal justice -- and who refuses to live in fear of strangers -- to pack up their stuff and march down the jetway with me.
This much I know: There are some principles worth more than any plane ticket.
An orca movie Sunday, August 20, 2006
Rather than write about what I've been up to this past week and a half, I thought I'd show you.
The movie I've made is really a 10-minute sound file illustrated with photos. The soundtrack is entirely orca sounds.
I've been listening to them through my hydrophone so I can get a handle on what the southern residents are trying to cope with in their native habitat, sound-wise. Killer whales' chief sensory capacity is through their echolocation -- they can only see about twenty feet underwater with their eyes, but hundreds of yards with echolocation -- and the presence of manmade sound is, after a paucity of salmon, one of the real survival issues they face. The sound interferes with their ability to hunt and to generally communicate. As you can hear, they are very social animals, and vocalize a great deal even while traveling.
One of the samples gives you an idea what they're up against: In the middle of a relatively quiet set of vocalizations, a boat motor fires up and takes off -- completely drowning out any orca sounds at all. It's worth noting that this was not a whale-watching boat -- it was just a fisherman with a 20-foot recreational boat who was watching the orcas for awhile and got bored.
As the sound samples progress, you'll note that the noise levels increase, especially as more boats began surrounding them. In the canyon walls of San Juan Island's western coast, the constant echoes just add to the general din.
Hope you enjoy. Back to our regularly scheduled political commentary later today.