Post-9/11 way of life becoming commonplace for our children

January 01, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I TOOK my son to the airport for a morning flight from Baltimore to Hartford. The line to the Southwest Airlines ticket counter was long, but it moved efficiently. As we were presenting identification and getting bags checked, there was a sudden sound - like something falling, like maybe ice sliding off a roof. I was startled by it; you just don't want to hear anything too loud or sudden in an airport during an Orange Alert. I spun around to see what had happened. Two men were grappling with a large plastic cooler full of frozen steaks - hunters with deer meat? terrorists smuggling mad cow to the East Coast? - that had tumbled out of the cooler and spilled onto the floor.

Maybe in the old days, before 9/11, a heavy cooler dropped in an airport ticket line would have startled everyone around it - both the infrequent fliers who are always a little nervous anyway as well as the bored travelers for whom air travel has become routine. A loud, unexpected noise can cause people to gasp anywhere at any time.

But it's different now. Every time we start feeling that things are back to normal, you realize that we've merely arrived at a different level of normal. A lot of us are still getting used to it.

A lot of us still think - and hope - that all this is temporary, that after a crusade against terrorism, life in the United States will return to what it was - peaceful but for the awful violence we inflict upon each other and ourselves. The attacks of 9/11 added a new set of fears, which led to a new level of stress and inconvenience and challenges to personal freedoms.

But it's not going to last, right?

Our children will live in more trusting times, won't they?

When I'm old and gray, like the man in front of me at the BWI security station, I won't have to remove my shoes to take a one-hour flight, will I? This isn't the world I'm leaving for my son, is it?

We had arrived at BWI two hours ahead of schedule. Now it was time to step through metal detectors. Federal security agents directed us to remove coats and place them on the conveyor for scanning, along with metal objects and carry-on bags. All that was routine. The elderly man in front of me seemed a little confused. A middle-aged woman, presumably his daughter, helped him comply with the security rules.

As the elderly man fussed with wristwatch and coins and keys, I thought about the past, present and future.

The man in front of me was old enough to remember Pearl Harbor and World War II, though he was probably a little too young to have fought in it. I suspect he might have been a home-front kid, a young teen during a distant war - like my son now. The gentleman lived through a time of heightened security, with air-raid drills, coastal patrols and the roundup and detention of Japanese-American citizens by their own government.

But World War II ended without another attack on the American home front. There are dates you can look up - when the big war ended in Europe, when it ended in Asia - and they stand clear as passages to a time of relative peace (peace in human history always being relative to times of war, and obviously much better for winners than for losers).

Though the Cold War continued for years, with nuclear attacks looming over the baby boom generation, we lived to see the end of that threat. Our biggest fears came to be drunken drivers, heart disease, cancer, cholesterol, street violence.

Then 9/11 added another layer.

As I stepped through the checkpoint at BWI, a federal security agent, who seemed too fatigued for please and thank you, told me to remove my shoes. Another checked my already- X-rayed coat by hand and scanned, for a second time, a small parcel in a shopping bag. A third agent told me, as he had told the old man before me, to place my feet over a set of footprints painted on a floor pad. He told me to spread my arms, then scanned me with a metal detector, pulling at my belt buckle.

He did the same thing to my son, frisking his pants legs.

Several times since 9/11 - usually while visiting airports, or attending large public events - I have thought of Terry Gilliam's 1984-ish 1985 film Brazil. It depicted a totalitarian state where citizens had surrendered their civil liberties in return for protection from terrorist attacks. Random bombings occurred in restaurants and malls, and people had to pass through security stations for almost everything they did.

The citizenry's shrugging acceptance of the threat - and the state's omniscient police powers - is what struck me as most disturbing about the film. And after 9/11, it became easier to imagine the world's last superpower similarly obsessed with the threat of terror, a government continually responding to it and a citizenry forfeiting personal liberties in the hopes it will all go away some day.

This is not so much a complaint as it is a statement of reality, part of the long mourning for what we lost on 9/11. As I sat in the airport with holiday travelers the other day, putting my shoes back on and tying up the laces, I got a handle on what bugged me about all this. It's not that the security measures are an inconvenience, or mildly demeaning, or an affront to civil liberties. It's that parents want to leave their children a world better than the one they knew, and I guess I was hoping my son could get past 13 without being frisked by a federal agent.

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