By Bruce Bawer
During the last week I have taken six flights, a couple within Europe, a couple within the U.S., and a couple transatlantic. Which means that in the past few days I have repeatedly found myself standing in a line of fellow travelers waiting to be subjected to an outrageous invasion of privacy, stuffing my possessions into containers as swiftly as possible so as not to hold up the poor schmucks behind me, dragging those containers along a conveyor belt in a way that cannot be anything but awkward, unwieldy, and demeaning, walking through a scanner and hoping against hope that I will not set it off and, as a result, be subjected to a sudden intimate encounter with some surly, unsavory stranger, and then stumbling away from the whole sorry, debasing, mortifying mess in my stocking feet, pulling my suitcase and holding a pair of sneakers with one hand, clinging to my laptop with the other, and leaning over unnaturally, like the hunchback of Notre Dame, in hopes of keeping my overstuffed shoulder bag from falling off my shoulder.
I must say, having gone through this ritual at God knows how many airports across both Western Europe and the U.S. over the years since 9/11, that the individuals who have been engaged to carry out this delicate and intrusive work at American airports are, on average, considerably less delightful than those who perform the same duties at Western European airports. I do not think that this is because they are more consciously vigilant against genuine threats of terrorism. My impression, rather, is that the U.S. government – or, more specifically, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – has managed to hire just about everybody who was ever turned down for a job with the New York State Motor Vehicle Bureau for being insufficiently charming, intelligent, and motivated. Many of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, incredibly rude, stupid, and slovenly individuals who have been handed a degree of power that they never imagined in their wildest dreams they would ever wield, and who are reveling in it and making the most of it. They talk and act and dress like slobs; they carry themselves, in more than a few cases, almost like thugs; they have little or no concept of manners or decency or, for that matter, democracy. Meanwhile, the people doing the same job in countries like Germany and Denmark are, more often than not, extremely professional, courteous, respectful, well-disciplined, very neatly dressed and groomed, and, quite plainly, light-years more intelligent than their American counterparts. With few exceptions, they do not take advantage of their position.
To be sure, some of the people carrying out this exquisite exercise in humiliation at U.S. airports are quite decent and friendly and are plainly trying their best to make the whole ordeal as painless as possible. I still recall, for instance, the pleasant exchange I had a couple of years ago with a functionary at some U.S. airport who told me I had to discard the bottle of vodka I had bought at a duty-free shop in some European airport, even though I’d been assured that it had been sealed in such a way as to enable me to take it with me all the way to my destination. This functionary understood as fully as I did that the regulation which required me to toss the bottle of booze was absurd. The situation had nothing to do with the threat of terrorism: it was about the bullying of free citizens by their government. I urged the functionary, who was kind and apologetic, to take the bottle of vodka home to her family and have an enjoyable evening on me. She said that that was against regulations; the vodka would simply have to be discarded.
We all know why we are supposedly being put through this systematic indignity. Airplanes were the weapons of choice on 9/11. And later developments have shown that terrorists have not given up on the idea of making use of commercial flights in their war on us, although it has also become clear that they have a wide arsenal of weapons at their disposal. For nearly ten years we have been told over and over again that “if we do X, Y, or Z the terrorists will win.” But when I am at any American airport, and I see all the signs and posters reminding me that the magnificent men and women of the TSA and Department of Homeland Security are on the job, and also reminding me that even after I and my possessions have been through the scanners they’ve still got the right to put me through whatever harassment they might be in the mood for, I am enraged at the thought that, of all things, 9/11 has brought us to this insane, illiberal, terribly un-American state of affairs. There are, indeed, times when I can’t help feeling that the very existence of this all too often incompetent and belligerent TSA and Department of Homeland Security apparatus means that the terrorists have won.
I remember 9/11 vividly – always will. And I vividly remember, too, the multitudinous thoughts that rushed through my mind on that horrible day about what kinds of extraordinary changes my country, and the world, would be undergoing in the years to come. I imagined all sorts of things. I imagined longtime political divisions evaporating as freedom-loving men and women of good will the world over recognized who the real enemies of liberty were and worked together on how best to defeat them. (Ha!) But I did not imagine this. I did not imagine that I would see sweet, feeble, octogenarian widows from Iowa on their way to visit their grandchildren in Texas being ordered around like concentration-camp prisoners and compelled to take off their shoes, put them on a conveyor belt, retrieve them under the churlish gaze of some petty tyrant in a uniform, and hobble over to a chair to put them back on. It’s sheer madness. It’s an affront to fundamental American principles. And it has absolutely nothing – nothing! – to do with the nature of the threat we actually face.
If we’re going to fight this war, by all means let’s fight it with everything we’ve got. But if we’re too cowardly to fight it, or too politically correct to even name our enemies and acknowledge the nature of their strategies and tactics, let’s just forget about it and – while we’re waiting for them to take over completely – at least allow people to get on planes without stripping them of every last shred of the human dignity that America, and Western democracy, are supposed to be all about.