Fright and Flight

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 5, 2005

When you travel in America today you get scrutinized as a possible terrorist. This is despite the fact that you are not a terrorist, don't know any terrorists and wouldn't even know what to do if you were a terrorist. It's a bit like being suspected of wizardry or witchcraft, and having your bags searched for poison toads and eyes of newt. I always want to announce, "I'm not a terrorist and, indeed, don't even have any strong opinions."

The other day I was in another long line of non-terrorists producing their driver's licenses and taking their shoes off and yanking their laptops out and doing all the things that non-terrorists do, without complaint, to prove that they are not even a little bit associated with al Qaeda, or with Saddam, or with North Korea, or even with the French.

I know there's a reason we do this -- a very big, grave, ultimately tragic reason -- but at some level it still feels like an enormous waste of time, money, manpower and what you might call cultural psychic energy. It's supposed to be a way of minimizing risk, but it feels more like a ritualization of fear. I pray for some clever entrepreneur to come up with a scheme in which only the terrorists get screened. There could be two lines: the EZ Pass for most of us, and the Terrorist Line.

But no, that would no doubt be considered discriminatory against terrorists who weren't planning on terrorizing that particular plane.

Since 9/11 we've all learned to go with the flow, to be sheep, to shuffle along and ask no questions, and indeed to remain silent. Even a harmless question, such as, "What time is the shift change for the security guards today?" makes the screeners nervous. Then you get the full security search, the feet-apart, arms-spread stuff, with the wand going all over your body, and invariably I find myself saying, "A little lower please . . . yesss, there."

It's worse for women, for whom the full-body security check is too much of a reminder of being pawed by testosterone-addled boy-creatures in ninth grade. Also women have purses containing things that are extremely, intimately personal, and they have to stand there silently as some total stranger examines these items with an X-ray machine. Talk about invasive! The guy looks right into the interior of all those mysterious tubes and vials and applicators! And then calls over his buddy, and they stare at it together, and finally determine -- snickering! -- that what they are looking at is just a harmless Girl Thingie.

The security checkpoint is a bottleneck in a transportation system that is supposed to be as fluid as possible. Most people at airports are business travelers, and business travel is, at least in theory, all about efficiency. In the ideal world, you have the conversion of a solid (the businessperson) into something that can be transported through the arteries of the American marketplace. The model for this is canned cat food, which, according to my friend Mit, takes advantage of the great innovation known as pumpable meat. The industry figured out how to render meat into a fluid and pump it into the cans, which are then sealed and cooked. That's what you're supposed to be when you travel in America: Pumpable, squirtable human meat, transferred from one container to another.

Young people today probably don't realize this, but there was a time when travel in America was classier and less meat-like. People dressed well for a train, and really spiffy for an airplane. Just your fashions could prove that you weren't a hijacker. The guards could tell by the fabric and the tailoring. Everything was so relaxed! You could crack jokes at the X-ray machine, saying funny things like, "Nothing in there but some handguns and C-4 plastic explosives, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha," and all the guards would laugh along with you.

Back then, you were not only allowed to bring a lighter onto a plane, but you could smoke -- cigarettes, cigars, a bong, whatever. Eventually they got rid of the "smoking section" when they realized that an airplane is just one room. Everyone had to smoke in the lavatories, until they passed a law saying that anyone who tampers with the lavatory smoke detector will be put to death. This is why when you fly these days you so often see someone out there on the wing, desperately cupping his hands around a match.

There are good reasons for Americans to be cautious in a world gone mad, but if caution is taken too far, we risk creating a Culture of Fear. You can't even walk through an airport without encountering a nagging voice, saying over and over: CAUTION, THE MOVING WALKWAY IS ENDING. CAUTION, THE MOVING WALKWAY IS ENDING. CAUTION. . .

In the good old days, you were allowed to stumble.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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