Wink wink, nudge nudge

I normally try to never complain about TSA officers or any other government employee, particularly those who are charged with keeping us safe. But something happened this morning that really bothered me.

There was an unusually long security line at my home airport, KCI, where the much-loved (and soon to be retired) drive-up design usually guarantees easy boarding. There were a few changes to the usual procedure: passengers passed by a dog, and some were having their hands swiped for some reason. And just as with most flights I’ve taken in the past year or so, certain passengers were being randomly assigned “pre-check” status to test the new system that the TSA is developing.

None of this annoys me any more than any other piece of security theater, even if it personally inconveniences me. It’s not my place to guess what officers need to screen for, and even changing the security routine at random can help deter criminals. As for pre-check, I don’t know anything about it, but I don’t mind the randomized “upgrades” — as the healthcare.gov debacle showed us, changes to the “program” of government ought to be prototyped.

As it became clear that the length of the line was getting out of hand, however, the officers started to change things up in a way that bugged me. A jaunty-looking fellow opened up a new line, then, waving his hand over a whole section of us who had already had our boarding passes scanned, said, “All of you are pre-check passengers now” and directed us over to a line where less severe rules would prevail.

I knew this was one of the situations in life where I was going to be the stinker. After my bags had gone through, I tapped the officer on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry sir, but we weren’t actually in the pre-check line.” I could feel the eyes of my fellow passengers marking me as a traitor. But then the guy gave me a wink and a smile and said, “Oh yes you were.”

He was just being Midwestern nice, I’m sure. But the whole experience stuck in my craw.

We’re all used to government treating us as captive consumers instead of citizens. That may be an inevitable aspect of the way all of us relate to each other in a world where we frequently interact with other human beings as customers or service providers, patrons or clients (though fewer and fewer people seem to have any idea of the duties connected to any of those social roles). I think people are smart enough to interact with their government as a consumer in one moment and a citizen in the next, knowing that there is something more sacred about the voting booth than the line at the DMV.

But this man’s wink was something different. It suggested that I was enjoying some sort of special privilege by opting out of the project of our collective security. And it reminded me of any number of instances in which loopholes in law or the enforcement of law are presented as some kind of reward, from various refunds in the tax code to exemptions from gambling laws that will allegedly benefit education. Government does not just relate to us as consumers, but consumers who need to be “nudged.”

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book to which this word refers. But I often hear the term used to refer to the repertoire of psychology and design tricks that can subtly change human behavior. That companies do this doesn’t bother me — the constant manipulation of desire is just part of the late capitalist game. And I don’t think it’s an entirely illegitimate option for government either — there are any number of interactions between government and its citizens where we all must choose some sort of default, opt-in or opt-out.

But when exemptions from the law (and ultimately, the project of the common good) are presented as rewards or treats, I don’t think we should be surprised that the ideal of the common good is increasingly difficult to invoke in our public discourse. In such a world, making the claim that we all ought to follow the same rules doesn’t just inconvenience our neighbors — it takes away their privilege or spoils their party. I think this is a concern no matter what your political ideals, because once we lose the “muscle memory” of talking about the rules we all should follow, it becomes more difficult to revise the law in either a conservative or progressive direction. The common good becomes a series of “got mines” held by crony citizens who can’t even see themselves in each other (much less those charged with enforcing the law).

That may be a lot to read into a wink at the airport. But when it happened, I thought back to the dog and the swipes and officers doing the pat-downs. When people complain about these personnel (or police officers or public school teachers or federal bureaucrats) I am usually the first to say, “Calm down, they’re doing their job.” Yet when that job includes a wink and a nudge, it becomes that much more difficult to defend.

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