The Point of Protest is to be Effective

It’s a rare day when Eugene Volokh totally misses the point of something (it’s not a rare day when I disagree with him, but that’s different). But in endorsing Kent Scheidegger on National Opt-Out Day, I think we’ve got one.

the idea of scheduling a gum-up-the-works protest for the day before Thanksgiving is beyond despicable. National Opt-Out Day is a call for large numbers of people to opt out of the scanners and elect the longer manual search, all on the same day. It is a cruel and heartless act of vandalism that will seriously hurt other passengers, not the people at whom it is supposedly directed….

This is wrong on almost every front. First, there is absolutely nothing “despicable” about urging people to exercise their legal right to opt-out of being x-rayed. This isn’t even a case where people are being asked to engage in Gandhi/King style non-violent protest and, say, peacefully block a road waiting to be arrested, although if the cause were just I’d be more likely to call it “courageous” rather than “despicable”. Repeat, there is nothing wrong with exercising your legal right to choose one intrusive form of suspicionless government search over a possibly dangerous form of suspicionless government irradiation. Do you trust the TSA people at your airport to properly calibrate the backscatter x-ray machines or the so-called millimeter wave machines? I don’t: Even hospitals get the x-ray dosages wrong with alarming frequency, and I’m betting hospital machines are more closely monitored for health risks than the TSA‘s high-volume machines are.

No, this is a basic Alinsky-style tactic in which people are urged to do that which they are allowed to do, en mass, in order to demonstrate their distaste regarding what they are forced to do (choose between being irradiated or being searched over-intrusively) or not allowed to do (travel freely). There is little point in such protest at six in the morning on a light travel day — the tree may fall in the forest, but no one will notice. The whole point of the exercise is to create pressure for change while acting entirely within the law. Pressure for change is increased if bystanders are co-opted into complaining about the resultant delays or even persuaded to join in the protest.

My general view is that when my fellow citizens are motivated to participate in the political process by any form of organizing around legal action — even stuff I disagree with — this is a good thing for the system. (The hardest case is when the motivation is lies. But then the real problem is the lies and the liars, not the well-intentioned protesters.) Most of the time I feel the same way about non-violent protest too, even if it consists of civil disobedience. Where I draw the line is violence and threats of violence. Of course, if I disagree with protesters, I reserve the right to attempt to point out the error of their ways, but that goes to substance, not tactics.

Reading complaints about the upcoming protest one is left with the strong suspicion that the “despicable” aspect of this protest from the point of view of those who prefer their fellow citizens just shut up and take it is that it is a protest, or rather that it is a protest that just might work. Meanwhile, as the protesters were considerate enough to warn of their plans, plan to be at the airport early.

PS. I’m traveling on Wednesday, so I and my family will be among those inconvenienced at MIA. I’ll be among those opting out if not run through a metal detector, although I would have done so regardless of the existence of the opt-out movement because I’ve had more than a couple of lifetime’s supply of x-rays this year. (See TSA Glow or Grope Policy.)

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13 Responses to The Point of Protest is to be Effective

  1. Just me says:

    right on

  2. Rick says:

    So if the protest is a “success” then thousands of air travelers will most likely wind up missing their flights home for Thanksgiving. Interesting.

    I’m not traveling that day but it will be amusing to see how many of these protesters and supporters still give the thumbs up to this thing as they curl up for the night on the terminal floor and catch a few winks before their rescheduled flight leaves first thing in the morning.

    There is principle and then there’s stupidity. I’m leaning towards the 2nd on this one. And it has zero to do about “shutting up and taking it.”


  3. michael says:

    Yes, in the eyes of the organizers, I think you have it right. (Note that I’m not one of them.) Yes, there are innocent people seriously inconvenienced if it “works”.

    That is not great. It doesn’t make me at all happy. But here’s the thing that makes me unwilling to condemn this: how would you suggest that people who think their civil liberties are being trampled should react? Neither Congress nor Obama are going to do anything that might get them tagged with being “soft” unless some sort of counter-pressure is created. Letters to the editor — and blog postings — are not going to do it.

    I wonder, by the way, if perhaps there won’t be too much chaos. I wouldn’t be surprised if the TSA attempted to defuse the whole thing by having more folks go through metal detectors on Wednesday in order to then say the protest was a failure and the US public loves their new scanners.

  4. Rick says:

    Politics created the TSA monster, politics can disassemble it, or at least parts of it. Write or call your congressman…repeatedly, if you have to. That’s certainly something between doing nothing and causing thousands of people needless inconvenience and hardship.

    The people who are opting out on Wednesday are doing so because it makes them feel good that they’re demonstrating their displeasure with the system. It’s very empowering. Just ask the Rick Scott voters how empowered they feel these days.

    And look at the end result.


  5. michael says:

    Bah. Writing to senators doesn’t achieve anything. Maybe congresspersons. But as I said above, it will take far more than that.

    As for demeaning people making a small act of protest, trying to be heard, as “doing it because it makes them feel good” I think you might want to do a small gut check on that attitude about the, you know, little people.

    I also think this is an issue where the left and right meet. The question is whether the middle goes along too.

    Scott’s victory shows us elections sometimes can be bought if you spend enough and the other side runs an unexciting candidate. (But see California.) The lesson from the Scott campaign is that we need to do something about the influence of money in elections. Not that we need to tell people to stop getting all agitated. There’s plenty to be agitated about. That’s a healthy reaction to our very real problems. The question is what sort of a playing field were going to have for the marketplace of ideas — one where you need multi-millions to have a chance, or a better one.

  6. Rick says:

    If this is such a “small act of a protest,” why do it? It actually has the potential to cause a lot of problems for a lot of people, the majority of whom still support TSA procedures.

    There is a middle ground here, Michael, and the people who are standing there aren’t doormats nor are they totally against what may happen on Wednesday. It’s just that they think there’s better way of expressing their distaste for what may be some very bad policy making by some folks sitting behind desks in DC.

    For even more on this, make sure you read The Reid Report’s post on what is behind all this.

    By the way…did you know that these backscatter x-rays have been in MIA since April? Why did it take 7 months for people to notice them?


  7. michael says:

    I don’t know about the wave machines, but the puffers have been at MIA for some time and I have always opted out of them too. The difference is that the alternative used to be quite humane: a lot of wanding, and a very quick pretty gentle pat down. Now, if news reports are to be trusted, they are doing the full monty. I think that changes things.

    I because I see writing a letter as all but ineffectual, I don’t count it as a protest at all. And I have yet to hear you or anyone else suggest any alternative protest which has the remotest chance of success. The point of protest is to be effective. What alternative with any reasonable chance of effectiveness can you suggest please? Just telling people “not this” will not cut it.

    Reid seems very excited that librarians are in the lead here. But that fact is hardly surprising. The people who care most about the gradual loss of constitutional rights tend to be ACLU types and libertarians (sometimes the same person). To the extent that the ACLU types are more left-libertarian then right-libertarian, it doesn’t surprise me that they have been quieter since they may be reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration.

    I also completely don’t get the argument that “this wrong has been going for some time” so somehow it’s wrong to protest now. I missed the estoppel clause of the Constitution when I was in law school. And a few months of quiet infringement is enough to destroy a right? That’s some tissue-paper Constitution you’ve got there.

  8. Just me says:

    I disagree with the premise that innocents “will most likely wind up missing their flights home for Thanksgiving” if this protest is a success.

    The traveling public is on notice of the protest, and of the delays it will cause. If you missed your flight to due to the protest, it is because you did not plan ahead, and is thus your fault.

    Get to the airport extra early. Exercise your right to protest. If you get to the airport ridiculously early, have a beer at the bar after clearing security. Catch your flight. Done.

  9. Patrick says:

    If effectiveness is the measure… and you piss off the vast majority of Americans… doesn’t this protest fail?

    I think so. I’m no fan of glowing OR groping. But there has to be a better way to PERSUADE.

  10. Robert Kuntz says:

    Masses of travelers opting out is precisely what Michael said it was — a simple exercise of a right. It’s not even civil disobedience, for heaven’s sake, it’s civil obedience.

    It is disheartening to hear that apologists for these infringements are now comfortable expressing the view that we must not just stand quietly in the chute as we’re shorn of our rights, we must, instead, volunteer to do the sheering ourselves — and then mail in the fleece at our expense. That anyone would feel comfortable expressing that view tells you how bad things already are. (Notice that even most of them have stopped pretending this has a damned thing to do with securing aircraft. Now it’s about the quality of your submission to authority.)

    Opt Out day is a good idea and it will help to make more militants, which is worthwhile. To borrow a quote, it’s going to war with the army you have.

    The next front is going to be economic, as more and more travelers choose to fly less and less. I agree there’s little point in ME writing my to senator. But I think they still read mail from airline chairmen of the board.

    The front after that is when it starts to get messy.

  11. Just me says:

    Don’t think the TSA are overreaching? Check this out from

    “An airline passenger outfitted with a urine bag for medical reasons had to sit through his flight soaked in urine after a TSA agent dislodged his bag during an aggressive security pat-down.”

  12. Rick says:

    Michael….I totally get your education. Really. But thanks for reminding me.

    I think I’ll be posting something on this tomorrow. You definitely won’t have to use Black’s Law Dictionary and it won’t be any heavier than tissue paper, but it should contain my thoughts nonetheless.

    But try to come up with a solution because complaining and protesting about something is the easy part.


  13. howard says:

    I have always refused to go through the body scan machines since they appeared at MIA. I think you don’t have that choice in some countries like Netherlands, but at least here we still do. Most of the times, I made it through security much faster than those going through the body scan machine because I always ended up walking through the lineless metal detector and that was it. I’m still confused if I will now be subject to the pat down regardless of whether the metal detector goes off – but will find out manana on my way to Colorado. I think its great people care enough to protest tomorrow.

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