Count your remaining liberties at the next security checkpoint

April 10, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE LAST morning of the Maryland legislative session, this bunch of kids, dripping wet, giddy with laughter, ducked out of a leaden morning rain and ran into the modern America: a line that stopped at a security checkpoint in the State House basement and backed up all the way to the door.

Uniformed officers went through pocketbooks and school bags. The kids were teen-agers. Some of them looked surprised to be searched and some of them - well, some of them looked surprised at the other kids' sense of surprise. You could divide the reaction by accent. The kids who didn't expect the search were exchange students from a school near Hamburg, Germany. The kids accustomed to this routine American checkpoint were students at Severna Park High in Anne Arundel County.

So it goes.

In Baghdad yesterday, there were television pictures of Americans pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein, while thousands of Iraqis in a public square waved flags and cheered heartily. It wasn't exactly Paris dusting off the champagne bottles in '45, but it was pretty good. The war was beginning to be over.

Monday, in Annapolis, in the State House basement, we had this German teacher explaining to her kids that the search at the door was nothing to worry about. The uniformed officers smiled pleasantly at the kids. After a moment, the kids were smiling back, almost as if happy to be showing off what nice stuff they were carrying.

"You don't have security measures like this in Germany?" their teacher was asked.

She shook her head no. "Why?" she asked. "Why would we have?"

In America, we no longer ask such questions. Certain things we take for granted now. There was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when the fear of increased street crime was making everybody nuts and they started installing electronic sensors in certain public buildings. In that era, we held public meetings and consulted civil liberties attorneys and worried where such intrusions into our privacy might ultimately take us.

You don't hear so much of that talk now. And you look at these kids from Severna Park, and you realize something: This is the only America they have ever known. The debate ended before they took their first breaths. In their America, nobody walks into a courthouse, or a police station, or a City Hall or a State House, without going through a metal detector and showing strangers the contents of any bags they're carrying.

It's a world where they put security cameras in department stores, and electronic beepers at airports, and the electric sign suspended over the Beltway gives you a telephone number to call if you think you spot anything that might be connected to terrorism.

It's just the way we conduct our lives now, particularly in the post-Sept. 11 world. In the glow of the victorious moment, we sigh with relief and applaud the kids in uniform who brought us something that looks like victory. And nobody thinks about the ways we've tightened our lives at home, and learned to take a siege mentality for granted, in order to protect ourselves.

We put aside the thing said by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Remember what Mubarak said? It was last week, when things weren't looking quite so bright in Iraq. He blamed Saddam Hussein for provoking war but said the American incursion might rouse "a hundred" future Osama bin Ladens across the Arab world.

It's one reason so much of the world community had so many problems with America going into Iraq almost alone. Nobody doubted the cruelty of Saddam Hussein, or the overwhelming American military strength. It's the nagging question about what follows. Even as crowds in Baghdad cheer American troops, the White House warns of difficult days ahead.

What does difficult mean? Does it mean putting electronic beepers at ballparks? Uniformed troops inside public squares? Electronic beepers on street corners? There's an attorney general, John Ashcroft, who's already given the FBI the go-ahead to infiltrate places of worship, and a presidential spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who warned Americans to "watch what they say."

There was a time when such things would have provoked all manner of Americans to cry, "This is a free country, isn't it?" Not after Sept. 11 it's not, at least not as free as it used to be. The question is: How much more will we give up? Yesterday's celebrating in Baghdad momentarily masks the national anxiety, where security lines at the State House provoke surprise from German kids, but the Americans take it for granted.

It's the modern way we duck our heads. The question is: How long before we think we're safe enough to lift them again? And what else will we give up before then?

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