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The Stanford Prison Experiment at America’s Airports

By Theo Caldwell
Published Wed Dec 08, 2010 in Blogs » Theos Thoughts

In 1971, researchers set up a prison in the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Department. The idea was to observe how 24 undergraduate students would behave when divided into two groups – “prisoners” and “guards” – and allowed to play out their roles over two weeks. But within 6 days, the simulation had to be stopped. Students playing “guards” became sadistic, while “prisoners” evinced severe anxiety and distress.

Scientific criticisms of the Stanford experiment notwithstanding, the elemental message lingers: It is human nature to abuse authority; and the fewer checks on that authority, the more obscene the abuse becomes.

With that in mind, let’s have a gander at America’s airports and see how the TSA’s new virtual strip-search, busy-fingered pat-down policy is going. To re-cap, government agents have been empowered to subject airline travelers to nude, full-body scans and/or highly invasive hand searches. TSA officers may choose anyone for such scrutiny, without explanation, and if the selected person attempts to avoid whatever search methods the officer decrees – even by opting not to fly – he or she will be detained, prosecuted, and subject to massive fines.

Even without the empirical evidence of eggheads from Stanford, most folks instinctively understand you cannot give people, no matter how well-adjusted, this level of unaccountable authority over others.

Take the example of former Baywatch star Donna D’Errico, who claims a male TSA officer grabbed her out of line at Los Angeles International Airport and forced her to undergo a naked scan. When the fetching Ms. D’Errico asked the officer why she was the only person chosen, he replied, “You caught my eye.” For good measure – and plausibly, to obscure his true motives – the officer also scanned Ms. D’Errico’s young son, and subjected him to an extensive pat-down. Afterward, Ms. D’Errico reports seeing the officer and a male colleague – possibly the one who was privileged to see her naked image on the scanner – smirking and watching her walk on.

Much has been made of the fact that Ms. D’Errico has appeared in Playboy, suggesting nudity ought not to trouble her. That is relevant only insofar as it seems the same assets that got her into the magazine also got her into the scanner. The point is that she was violated with no recourse, escape, or appeal.

Reached for comment, a TSA spokeswoman called the incident “funny.” Really, now? Ms. D’Errico does not find it “funny,” nor does her son, nor do millions of women and families who face the prospect of government-sanctioned sexual violation as the price of travel. Indeed, the word I have read and heard most from females anticipating a flight is, “Dread.”

Consider the case of Stacey Armato, the young mother who was shoved into a glass cage by TSA officers at Phoenix Airport for refusing to allow her breast milk to go through an x-ray machine. She was held for an hour in full view of other passengers, subjected to a thorough hand-search, and told to, “Be quiet if you know what’s good for you.”

No one thought for a second that the breast milk was a matter of national security. I admit I wasn’t there, but I’ll say it again: The breast milk was never a threat. You know it, I know it, and the TSA thugs who abused this woman knew it. But the “guards” were in control.

As the system now stands, stories like these will multiply. Unfortunately, TSA Chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano show little interest in making changes.

Some have suggested the TSA’s methods are part and parcel with the war on terror, and these are small sacrifices for civilians to make while our troops are overseas, fighting for freedom. That’s half-right – our troops are fighting to preserve a free country, not one where husbands and fathers stand helplessly aside while the government takes naked pictures of their wives and children.

Indeed, how might a soldier hunkered down in Iraq or Afghanistan feel, being told that at that very moment back home, a TSA officer was ogling his wife’s naked image, or thrusting his hands into his child’s crotch, ostensibly in the name of the freedom he signed up to defend?

Stop it. Just stop now. Call it whatever you like – a re-evaluation period, a budget cutback, a legal opinion. But turn off your naked scanners, wheel them out, and tell your officers to keep their hands in the sunlight. Learn the lesson from Stanford some 40 years ago and wrap this one up early.

Pistole and Napolitano do not appear to be listening. They imagine we will become inured to scans and gropes, and some day look back, in Virgil’s supposition, to laugh at how prudish we once were. That, I believe, is a miscalculation.

America eventually does the right thing. The scanners will disappear from our airports and the blue gloves will retreat from our inseams. I believe that because I believe in the people of this country. Stick with it, keep at it, and let’s end this together.


Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.
Theo Caldwell


Theo Caldwell, B.A., M.Sc., is President of Caldwell Asset Management Inc., an author and columnist, and an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.
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