Here’s what we can look for as the federal government implements new rules meant to thwart the likes of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib, the would-be pants bomber:
—Sharp drop-offs in beverage sales as passengers find themselves barred from restrooms during the last 60 minutes of international flights.
—Airport check-in times longer than airplane flight times.
—An upsurge in employment for people turned on by the prospect of “patting down” strangers.
—A decrease in human dignity, across the board.
Here ‘s what we likely can’t look for:
—Federal acknowledgement that young Arabic or African men deserve more official attention than do the normal riff-raff of air travel—businessmen, grandmothers, babies, young couples from Wyoming, etc., etc.
—Broad political recognition of a broad need for broad (meaning decisive and certainly non-compassionate) measures to discourage and punish people who want to kill Americans.
Fascinating to contemplate is the hard truth that the terrorists have beaten us. Well, not in everything, of course, but certainly in ways significant for modern life.
Everything we can’t do at airports these days—walk to the gate unimpeded, keep our shoes and clothes on at checkpoints, feel joy and fulfillment in the experience of air travel—is owing to the terrorists. They have us handcuffed. We can’t quit thinking about them lest they do something to us. In a weird way, they’ve won without winning.
Let us contemplate how.
That terrorists aren’t nice is just boilerplate—we’ve always known it. That they want to kill us is the central consideration here. What do you do when people want to kill you? Generally, not enough, so dark and subterranean is the world they inhabit and hide in.
What matters most, nonetheless, is advertising them as enemies. Here is where the U. S. government—or better said, the U. S. political process—sometimes loses out.
The constant theme of too many journalists, bloggers and politicians since the early years of the supposed War on Terror is that Americans may not be a lot nicer than terrorists. The outcry over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq telegraphed this viewpoint to us. The outcry merged with endless blather about “illegal” wiretaps, disregard of constitutional niceties by the Bush administration and, most of all, waterboarding and varied other “outrages” at Guantanamo.
Nothing would do, it seemed, but to close Guantanamo and extend constitutional protections to the enemy operatives held there. So, just as soon as the Obama administration figures out where to stash the delightful inhabitants of Guantanamo, we’ll shutter the camp. Meanwhile, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 catastrophe awaits criminal trial in New York City, with all due constitutional protections.
A steady procession of events like this takes its toll in terms of civic morale. Americans grow suspicious—of each other. Maybe it’s all just a mix-up, this terrorism business. Maybe they don’t really want to kill us—just wake us up to their concerns? Maybe?
A little bit more indisputable is the harm our ambivalence about means and ends in the terror war is wreaking on national morale. A nation that consents to take its shoes off at the airport, and to abstain from the urgency of the restroom, without equating sacrifice to necessity—that nation would seem headed for nervous breakdown. If, indeed, it hasn’t already had one.
There isn’t much human dignity in meek acceptance of unnecessary hardships, such as submission to manhandling in the process of innocent travel. Yet on a generally received sense of dignity everything worthwhile depends. Our leaders seem not to understand the harm they do the American spirit by handcuffing rather than liberating it so as to get a vital job done—the extinction of (even if, shhh, we can’t say it) terrorism rooted in the hatreds and phobias of too many Muslims.
First things first: smash the people whose legacy is restroom lockouts and airport shoe inspections. Then ask them if they care to lodge any human rights complaints.
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