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The TSA and the Power of Shame

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The American air traveler has been remarkably docile over recent years. Take my shoes off? Fine. Put my liquids in a baggy where you can see them (but not test them)? No problem. Strip off my belt and watch and rings? Happy to. Subject myself to potentially dangerous radiation in a machine that hasn't been proven to work? I'm ready.

But the TSA finally seems to have crossed a line. We're hearing more and more stories about outrage on the part of passengers across the country.

It's being fueled by reports like the one about a woman being told to remove her prosthetic breast. Or the man whose aggressive pat down left him urine-stained despite his warnings to be careful with his urostomy bag. And the 71-year-old man who had to take his pants down in a public space for a knee replacement to be checked out.

The TSA is finally facing the fury it's long deserved, and the key ingredient is shame. That's right, in a culture where reality shows rule the airwaves and nobody seems to be ashamed of anything anymore, shame is driving the discussion.

According to psychologists like Gershen Kaufman, shame is a basic human feeling. Its core is a sense of exposure and that can take many forms. We can feel exposed about a misdeed (guilt), or exposed in front of an audience (shyness) or exposed for doing something silly (embarrassment). In its most extreme form, shame is humiliation and it can drive us into rage.

That's what the TSA has unwittingly done. It's enraging the American public by humiliating us through intrusive, invasive, idiotic security measures that leave many of us feeling helpless and ashamed. Imagine having had cancer surgery and having your body invaded once again, by strangers who don't seem to have the least bit of empathy or kindness.

These stories trigger our own sense of shame for the people suffering through them, and anxiety that we could be next. It's a nightmare. And half-hearted responses from the head of TSA only make things worse.

We had to put up with the lie that the government needed naked images of us and our loved ones to make us all safe, and these images couldn't be stored. Now we've been asked for "patience" and presented with a phony choice: be humiliated by these pat-downs or get blown up.

Shame sometimes has a powerful positive effect: it alerts us to outrages against human dignity, it makes us fight to right a wrong. That's what partly fuels movements for social change. In the cascade of TSA stupidity, there's one thing to be thankful for this holiday season: in pushing us too far, the TSA might be forcing us to wake up and take action.