Less than two months after 9/11, I was at the airport, getting on a plane heading to Muskogee, Oklahoma. Don't ask. (Don't tell.) From the minute I arrived at the airport, I noticed that everything had changed. Police cars circled the entire area like choreographed water ballet. The parking lot felt more menacing in broad daylight than I had ever sensed it to be on the nights I had flown in late and tried to remember where I had parked my car days earlier as I scoured the garage alone.
No more easy exchange with the curbside check-in attendants. $25 represented something more threatening than goodwill or an earnest plea to allow those extra 3lbs. to fly without additional charges, before luggage had any charges at all. Facing the new and improved security barriers that separated fliers from the rest of the world suddenly looked like the Berlin Wall. The lines between us and them had been drawn and were divided by a thing called “Security”. Those lines were long.
Everyone was suspicious. Everyone was unsure. Everyone was afraid. Including me.
The shoes I was wearing, my computer, the extra sweater and coat, my makeup and belt, the contents of my pocketbook and even the underwire of my bra raised everyone’s suspicion, including my own. After passing through the metal detector and being patted down, I scrambled to gather my belongings as they tumbled and slid down the conveyor belt. Colliding with each other, they ended up sandwiched between the heap of my predecessor’s collection and a pair of large men’s shoes and a briefcase that chased them. I had a fleeting thought of my family going through a similar albeit more humiliating experience when they arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. They surrendered much more than their luggage and paid with their lives. No metal detectors there.
After recovering from the shellshock of what security had become and realizing that this was our foreseeable future, I made my way to C14 for my flight to Oklahoma City. It took me only a minute or two to realize how the landscape had changed. I realized that one or several madmen had reduced us to this rubble of our own (in)humanity. There would be no more “before” or going back to the way it was. Overnight, we sped from zero to less than that in our endless pursuit of life and liberty. We could almost see it in the rearview mirror of our lives as we wondered, “What would Bill do?”
Gone were the gate-side joyous reunions and romantic, kiss-filled, tearful goodbyes. No more peering through the expansive windows at the planes gently gliding through the air, approaching with peaceful resolve and touching down on the runway against a picture perfect blue sky. No more marveling that man himself had created a mode of transportation we had come to take for granted but still inspired fascination. We had more important things to look for. We looked anxiously up at the sky, wondering if a jet would spontaneously explode and confetti our lives all over again. And then we looked around at everyone at the airport to see if we could locate the responsible party.
The discomfort at the gate was palpable as we averted each other’s eyes and cautiously took private inventory of who else was on our flight. Each traveler suddenly represented a potential key or impasse to our own survival. A mental list (by descending order) of suspicion was made by and about each other. Just how much of a threat could that person be to our getting from point A to point B in one piece, we all wondered? I know I did. I scanned the faces and looked for deceptive smiles or darting eyes.
Surely terrorists don’t want to go to Muskogee, I assured myself.
The man I felt most unease about fit a profile I didn’t want to believe existed in my mind. I had lived in Egypt for chrissake, and here I was imagining the worst about someone whom I knew nothing about, all because he resembled the face of a 21st century terrorist as portrayed by the media and our fearless leader. That he looked like millions of people I had once chosen to live among never entered my mind on that autumn day. He made me uneasy. I felt nervous.
And then my name was announced for a random increased security check that involved more questions and another thorough examination of my carryon, computer case and purse.
Nobody on that flight looked at me the same way again.
It is ten years later. Getting undressed is almost as much a part of flying today as all the other inconveniences and humiliation that air travel has become. I have been x-rayed and air-blown so many times that I can barely remember a time when I was not. Different machines in different cities, new and “improved” versions of the same, I have discovered that some are far more sensitive (effective?) than others. I have one piece of jewelry that consistently triggers a search through my entire bag and another that constantly forced me to walk through the metal detectors a second or third time, so that I no longer bother to wear it at all. Those Cartier bracelets are dangerous, I tell you.
Now we’re down to old-fashioned groping and I wonder why it took ten years to arrive at this kind of “intelligence” and “security” and to what benefit. All this money on technology and a decade into it, we’ve come down to the old-fashioned (near) strip search, looking to see if we have ants in our pants attached to a bomb. The method itself doesn’t really matter - it’s the education/knowledge of the people who administer these techniques. If you want to know what real safety or fear is like , go to Israel, where you will be made to feel guilty for what you ate for breakfast three days earlier or anything else they decide they have the right to ask or know before you get on a plane or enter their country.
They’ll never lay a hand on you, unless they need to.
The cost of human life seems to only get measured in lawsuits or by insurance policies. The government pays TSA agents anywhere between $10 and $15 an hour to keep us “safe” when we fly. I can only imagine how much "training" they get to protect us from ourselves and each other.
If that’s what we’re worth, our lives are in the wrong hands.