It seems like we are moving into an era where basic rights and freedoms are valued not as abstract principles but situationally, depending on the conditions under which the rights are threatened. Equal treatment under the law has always been an imperfectly applied ideal and in the past was violated with impunity but at least in the post-civil rights era, such selectivity was much more discreet. We are entering an era in which there is no longer even any pretense that the laws will be equally applied.
The recent 5-4 ruling by the US Supreme Court that anyone arrested for any offense, however minor or even mistakenly, can be subjected to strip searches is a further sign of the polarization that is occurring in the area of civil liberties and individual rights. (Incidentally Glenn Greenwald pointed out that the Obama administration actually argued in favor of the authorities being able to strip search anyone taken into custody, another example of his woeful record on civil liberties.)
Why is it that people complain vociferously about things like TSA pat down searches and body scanners at airports, while willing to allow repeated strip searches for anyone under arrest?
The answer once again comes down to the sense of privilege that some people enjoy. The ruling classes seem to think that if something will not happen to them personally, they don’t care if it is done to others. The people who travel by plane are mostly the well-to-do (that includes the members of the media) for whom plane travel is an essential part of their lives. Hence the rights of such people are watched over. The people who get arrested for minor offenses are almost always the poor, of color, or other minorities, so the rights of people in such situations are deemed to be not as important.
The lack of uproar over the strip search ruling is a telling indicator that the members of the ruling class think that it is unlikely to happen to them, although in principle it could. It also explains why there is so little outrage over the practices of arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, beatings, and even torture. People who belong to the middle and upper classes cannot conceive of ever being in a situation where such things might happen to them.
It is similar to why there is such widespread opposition to the use of cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners, although that is surely the fairest and most efficient way to catch such violators. (See here and here for my thoughts on that issue.) The problem with cameras is that they catch everyone who violates the rules, irrespective of race or age or income or status or the car, and such an egalitarian system cannot be tolerated.
The Daily Show had a good segment on the lack of outrage on the strip search ruling, followed by a two-part interview with the lawyer who argued the case on behalf of Albert Florence, the person who was strip searched twice after a mistaken arrest.
(These clips appeared on April 3, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)