If there is a single photograph to characterize the contrasts of late 20th-century world, I suppose it is a shot of a village farmer hoeing a field, with a jet passing overhead. Or maybe it's the same picture taken from the window of the plane, a perfect landscape with not a single visible face below.
Either way, it is a portrait of a gap. A gap of 30,000 feet of space, and much more experience, between those in the air and those on earth. A gap between travelers who streak from one continent to another for business and pleasure, and natives who are rooted in their problems below. A gap between those who are flying over boundaries, and those who may be fighting over them.
The more you study such a photograph the more you realize why air travel, the airport, the plane, has become a target of terrorism. No, it makes no rational sense for a sect to capture a group of air passengers, for a group apparently to blow up a plane over the Atlantic, for fanatics to settle their tribal, political, religious grievances with a bomb in a Tokyo or a German airport.
There is no reason to choose the air over the sea or the land for terrorism, unless the plane is more than an easy mark. Unless it is also now a symbol for the terrorist. A symbol of the powerful flying in comfortable machines over the less powerful. A symbol of how invisible the little people become to those who are, literally, above them.
If the plane is such a symbol, then the satisfaction of the deranged or the disaffected who drag such a creature out of the sky and harness it for their own political use is very clear. What sweet revenge in bringing the lofty down to earth.
Like most frequent flyers, I am uneasy with this notion of the plane as unwelcome ambassador of a powerful minority. But not just out of fear. In my daily life, I do not regard air travel as a measure of my distance from others on this earth. I think of it as an instrument of the global village.
I am struck regularly by the fact there is no major airport much more than a day away from another. I have assumed that this ability to travel brings us closer. But as the ports of the global village become scenes of tribal terrorism, I am much less confident of that. It may be that planes have brought us no closer together than missiles that can traverse continents in minutes.
Even the words and images that bounce almost instantly up from Beirut and down from satellites to our television sets seem less like the connecting tissue today. In the novel, "White Noise," author Don DeLillo writes, "For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set." But there are times when television is a tease, when we are as near and far from others as the hostages n a film clip are from their families.
We often use this other instrument of the global village the way we use the planes, to make antiseptic round- trip visits to the rest of the world. The messages come to us in a rush, but the understanding jetlags behind. We don't necessarily get any closer.
At times, the technology that increasingly binds the privileged into "one world" increases our alienation from the rest. We forget how vulnerable this world is, really, to the local passions of distant disputes, until these passions bring us down to earth.
Just last week, while airline passengers were held captive to such passions, a Saudi prince was a passenger in outer space. Prince Sultan Salman Saud circled the earth 111 times in seven days in the capsule of "Discovery." He watched one long, connected expanse of water, land, mountains go by. He saw the edge of the world.
Then Prince Saud was asked to describe what he thought of the world from his new vantage point. He said what other astronauts have said: "Looking at it from here, the troubles all over the world . . . look very strange as you see the boundaries and border lines disappearing." But what he did not see from his lofty technological perch was the farmer with the hoe. Or the man with the bomb.