Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The compelling myth of safety . . .

Eugene Robinson has an interesting OpEd piece in this morning's Washington Post that any thoughtful person traveling over the holidays might want to read. It's called, "TSA outcry is really a call for profiling," and toward the end of his essay Mr. Robinson writes that if we do not allow the Transportation Safety Board to continue its personal-privacy-busting screening practices, then the chances that terrorists would somehow down an aircraft "would greatly increase."

He goes on to point out that, as we do expect the TSA to keep us safe, what critics of full-body screening are really saying is:
Don't search me, and don't search my grandmother. Just search the potential terrorists. In other words, they want profiling.
That's a seductive idea, I suppose, if you don't spend a lot of time worrying about civil liberties. But it couldn't possibly work. Our terrorist enemies may be evil, but they're not stupid.
If we only search people who "look like terrorists," al-Qaeda will send people who don't fit the profile . . . If terrorists are clever enough to hide powerful explosives in ink cartridges, then eventually they'll find a suicide bomber who looks just like you, me or Granny.
So, there you are: Scan everyone or run a very slight risk of a WASP-y terrorist with bombs in his/her underwear being on your plane.

I do think it's important to remember while we're flapping and fuming about having our junk messed with,
that it's never, ever been a safe world, and living in it has never been a secure proposition. With this in mind, the most compelling part of Mr. Robinson's essay to me has nothing to do with the effectiveness of airport screening. Instead it was his saying that whether or not we all submit to it, "depends on how safe we want to be, or rather how safe we want to feel." (My italics, because I've always considered safety a feeling rather than an absolute reality.)

Post 9-11 America, it seems to me, has became a Timid New World. It's as though when the Twin Towers tumbled, they destroyed a huge chunk of our American cockiness that must have been  rooted in a mistaken belief we were invulnerable from attack by anyone but our own.

Since, 9-11, we've tried and failed to kill or corral this new breed of American enemy. We've spent enormous amounts of money trying to make ourselves feel safe, and still it seems that terrorists really can be anywhere. The only real decision we face is how scared we're going to be of our new reality. How much are we going to let fear erode our enjoyment of life?

I suppose I should admit right here and now that  I wasn't raised to worry much about danger. I grew up across the street from an endless stretch of woods, a good part of which I was allowed to play in without adult supervision. No one taught me to be afraid of snakes or spiders or lurking weirdos.

This sometimes meant that my big sister and I got ourselves into pickles, like the time she climbed a giant pine tree that was so rotten the fire department had to be called to fetch her down. But despite our lifelong careless ways, I'm happy to report, both my big sister and I are still here.

Maybe I'm way off here, but, my fellow Americans, it does seem to me that airport screening might finally help us to come to terms with the fact that our own absolute safety from terrorist attack cannot be guaranteed. Perhaps the real challenge of Post 9-11 America is to reinvent our American cockiness based on this new American reality.

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