Sexual humiliation a tool to control the masses
by Naomi Wolf
Excerpted by the Coffee Coaster 4/16/12
Full 4.6.12 column in The Guardian here
In a five-four ruling this week, the supreme court decided that anyone can be strip-searched upon arrest for any offense, however minor, at any time. This horror show ruling joins two recent horror show laws: the NDAA, which lets anyone be arrested forever at any time, and HR 347, the “trespass bill”, which gives you a 10-year sentence for protesting anywhere near someone with secret service protection. These criminalizations of being human follow, of course, the mini-uprising of the Occupy movement. Bagram airbase was used by the US to detain its ‘high-value’ targets during the ‘war on terror’ and is still Afghanistan’s main military prison. Photograph: Dar Yasin/AP
Is American strip-searching benign? The man who had brought the initial suit, Albert Florence, described having been told to “turn around. Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.” He said he felt humiliated: “It made me feel like less of a man.”
In surreal reasoning, justice Anthony Kennedy explained that this ruling is necessary because the 9/11 bomber could have been stopped for speeding. How would strip searching him have prevented the attack? Did justice Kennedy imagine that plans to blow up the twin towers had been concealed in a body cavity? In still more bizarre non-logic, his and the other justices’ decision rests on concerns about weapons and contraband in prison systems. But people under arrest – that is, who are not yet convicted – haven’t been introduced into a prison population.
Our surveillance state shown considerable determination to intrude on citizens sexually. There’s the sexual abuse of prisoners at Bagram – der Spiegel reports that “former inmates report incidents of … various forms of sexual humiliation. In some cases, an interrogator would place his penis along the face of the detainee while he was being questioned. Other inmates were raped with sticks or threatened with anal sex”. There was the stripping of Bradley Manning is solitary confinement. And there’s the policy set up after the story of the “underwear bomber” to grope US travelers genitally or else force them to go through a machine – made by a company, Rapiscan, owned by terror profiteer and former DHA czar Michael Chertoff – with images so vivid that it has been called the “pornoscanner”.
Believe me: you don’t want the state having the power to strip your clothes off. History shows that the use of forced nudity by a state that is descending into fascism is powerfully effective in controlling and subduing populations.
The political use of forced nudity by anti-democratic regimes is long established. Forcing people to undress is the first step in breaking down their sense of individuality and dignity and reinforcing their powerlessness. Enslaved women were sold naked on the blocks in the American south, and adolescent male slaves served young white ladies at table in the south, while they themselves were naked: their invisible humiliation was a trope for their emasculation. Jewish prisoners herded into concentration camps were stripped of clothing and photographed naked, as iconic images of that Holocaust reiterated.
One of the most terrifying moments for me when I visited Guantanamo prison in 2009 was seeing the way the architecture of the building positioned glass-fronted shower cubicles facing intentionally right into the central atrium – where young female guards stood watch over the forced nakedness of Muslim prisoners, who had no way to conceal themselves. Laws and rulings such as this are clearly designed to bring the conditions of Guantanamo, and abusive detention, home.
I have watched male police and TSA members standing by side by side salaciously observing women as they have been “patted down” in airports. I have experienced the weirdly phrased, sexually perverse intrusiveness of the state during an airport “pat-down”, which is always phrased in the words of a steamy paperback (“do you have any sensitive areas? … I will use the back of my hands under your breasts …”). One of my Facebook commentators suggested, I think plausibly, that more women are about to be found liable for arrest for petty reasons (scarily enough, the TSA is advertising for more female officers).
I interviewed the equivalent of TSA workers in Britain and found that the genital groping that is obligatory in the US is illegal in Britain. I believe that the genital groping policy in America, too, is designed to psychologically habituate US citizens to a condition in which they are demeaned and sexually intruded upon by the state – at any moment.
The most terrifying phrase of all in the decision is justice Kennedy’s striking use of the term “detainees” for “United States citizens under arrest”. Some members of Occupy who were arrested in Los Angeles also reported having been referred to by police as such. Justice Kennedy’s new use of what looks like a deliberate activation of that phrase is illuminating.
Ten years of association have given “detainee” the synonymous meaning in America as those to whom no rights apply – especially in prison. It has been long in use in America, habituating us to link it with a condition in which random Muslims far away may be stripped by the American state of any rights. Now the term – with its associations of “those to whom anything may be done” – is being deployed systematically in the direction of … any old American citizen.
Where are we headed? Why?