I’m walking away from the security screening line at the Indianapolis International Airport in my stocking feet when the TSA agent back at the checkpoint says calmly, “Get me law enforcement.” Someone in line behind me has started yelling belligerently about something—I can’t make out what. I don’t think he wants to blow anyone up; it sounds more like he’s elderly, and confused. It seems rude, not to mention suspicious, to turn around and look, so I try not to. All the people at the checkpoint near me likewise stare with desperate nonchalance in every other possible direction.
I don’t want to see an old confused man get arrested for yelling at the airport. With any luck I’ll be old and confused myself someday, and if so I expect to do a lot of yelling. But, as the soothing blue video screen in front of me explains, “Security agents have rights as well as responsibilities. Abuse, threats, and violence will not be tolerated.” Fair enough, I think, as I collect my shoes from the plastic bin that ferried them through the X-ray machine. No one should have to tolerate abuse. I’ve had plenty of jobs where I was expected to, and if I could have called for law enforcement to make it stop, I would have. All the same, I hope they go easy on the old guy. “Thank you for participating in security,” the video monitor deadpans, and I mull this sinister inanity as I trudge toward my gate.
I carry a heavy burden when “participating in security” because so many of my natural reactions are wholly inappropriate to the context of state-sponsored security. When I feel authority figures are being too heavy-handed, my immediate impulse is to say something snotty and sarcastic. I’m also the kind of person who is inclined to make little jokes to lighten up the atmosphere when things get tense. Plus I’m a lot more likely than your average air traveler to want to slug people who irritate me. None of these behaviors will get you through security uneventfully. I think this is why it takes me days to recover from air travel, even if I don’t change time zones. It’s not jet lag I suffer from, but a profound airport-based demoralization, the delayed strain from having to act civilized in such unnatural surroundings.
Flying was already one of my least favorite activities, even before 9/11. Since then, the experience has developed into an exquisitely tuned torture, calibrated to hit my borderline claustrophobia and native paranoia full force. The claustrophobia alone was manageable. I’m not averse to small spaces per se; elevators don’t bother me, and I work in a basement. I don’t, however, care much for small, dangerous spaces; e.g., caves, airplanes, submarines, pigpens (if you’re laughing, you’ve never met a real pig), and balconies high up on very tall buildings.
When there are millions of metric tons of rock hanging overhead, or thousands of feet of thin air beneath me, or hundreds of meters of water above me, or tusks nearby, I prefer to have a little wiggle room. I don’t panic in these settings but I do become noticeably more interested in wrapping up the business at hand, promptly. I walked the whole Carlsbad Caverns tour, for example, and mostly enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t have thought I could move that quickly in the dark. I can clean a pigsty pretty darned fast too.
But with air travel, there is no way to hurry things along. And there is so much to worry about before I even head to the airport. I have to contend with tickets, seat reservations, luggage, receipts, maps, identification, credit cards—the list stretches on and on: Long-term or short-term parking? Checked luggage? Tips for skycaps? Connecting flights? Do I have gum? Kleenex? A book? Preferably a book from the library—my theory is that I’m more likely to make it back home alive if I bring a library book, because returning library books is a cosmically unshirkable duty. Or at least I hope it is.
It was already stressful enough, and then some assholes started trying to crash the planes on purpose.
The Indy airport is jumpy today. When we pulled up to the curb, ominous lights were flashing and a disembodied voice kept repeating, “Airport safety officials are responding to a security alarm in this area. Please move to an adjacent area and wait there.” Everyone was outside on the (adjacent) sidewalk, sitting on their suitcases, smoking or chatting. After a while, people started drifting back inside. The voice was still repeating its message and although I didn’t see anyone official telling us what to do, I went inside too. The checkpoint line quickly built up and the place was swarming with officials in blue uniforms. Clearly, something had happened, but they were crisp and low key, and I never found out what caused the alarm.
I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. When I left Texas four days earlier, the Austin airport seemed calm but the agents barked out their orders like German field marshals: “Lay your bag flat! Laptops out! Not that bin, this bin! Stop the machine! Keep moving!” A guy in front of me got pulled out of line for harboring half a bottle of Mountain Dew and I wondered if I should try to send word to his family.
It’s supposed to make us feel safer, all this “security theater,” as it’s called—and indeed it’s not unlike watching The Crucible performed by a sixth-grade theater arts class. I guess it does make us feel like we’re doing something. You see a whole bunch of official-looking people wearing latex gloves and you know somebody is taking something seriously. But all the drama makes an odd contrast to the positive vibe airports try so pathetically to project Airports want to promise us leisure and freedom, a sense of comfort, and fast, easy travel to exotic places. They offer a bar in every concourse and at least three Starbucks locations per one working restroom. You can get a massage or a Wolfgang Puck sandwich while waiting for your flight, and every single storefront displays stacks and stacks of those C-shaped neck pillows. (If aliens walked through our airports they could be forgiven for thinking Earthlings all have necks like daisy stems, and that we go about our daily lives with our heads lolling dangerously on our shoulders.) Forget about threats, this part of the airport begs us. Lean back and relax. Have a latte, or maybe a Mountain Dew.
Another security line, this one in Dallas. My fellow passengers and I slowly wend our way through the gut of the airport, trying to look harmless, hoping not to cause digestive upset. The agents swarm around us and our baggage like white blood cells seeking harmful bacteria. Security’s purpose, they make it clear, is to neutralize pathogens. The belligerent elderly man in Indianapolis, the poor sap with the bottle of soda in Austin—they are foreign, possibly noxious entities. They must be surrounded, overwhelmed, and borne away somewhere, I guess to whatever part of the airport corresponds to kidneys in this analogy.
But just as the human immune system is liable to overreact, our larger security systems often see threats where there are none, and the resulting allergic reactions can be just as dangerous as external threats. Sometimes too, the successful eradication of all possible threats has unintended consequences. In the early twentieth century, as scientists became more aware of germs and how they spread infectious disease, the Western world made huge advances in sanitation. The constant threat of deadly water-borne pathogens was greatly reduced—an inspiring humanitarian achievement that unfortunately led directly to the worldwide polio pandemic. It turns out that low levels of the virus in drinking water used to give children a natural immunity to polio.
Maybe the thousands of polio-related deaths and paralysis cases were worth it; modern water and sewer systems undoubtedly also spared millions of children from cholera and other horrible diseases. Maybe strip-searching people’s grandmothers and confiscating four-ounce bottles of contact lens cleaner will save lots and lots of lives. Maybe our current security apparatus is a necessary evil. But it also teaches us some pretty squirrelly ways of responding to potential danger: Don’t speak up. Don’t call attention to yourself. Mind your own business. Leave it to law enforcement. Surrender the power over your own body to a stranger in a blue shirt and latex gloves. And don’t complain. Hey, do you want to go to Disneyworld or not? If you don’t like acting submissive toward government employees, you can always stay home. It’s a free country.
By the time I am excreted from the bowels of—sorry, participate in—security, I’ve repressed an awful lot. And once I’m on the plane, I know I will have to wall off most conscious thought entirely, since it would, if given free rein, leave me screaming randomly for the duration of the flight. As the jet shoots down the runway, I will stare with intense concentration at my dog-eared Sudoku book (“4!” I think, staring feverishly at the same puzzle I’ve been working on since I flew out of Austin earlier in the week. “4! 4!”). I will focus on irrelevancies: How much I love Paul Pena’s song “Jet Airliner,” and how much I loathe Steve Miller’s cover of it. I will sweat, even if there is no turbulence. If there is turbulence, I will leave fingernail-shaped holes in the armrests and spend my time agonizing over which of my seatmates least deserves to be vomited on (I lean toward whoever looks like they can afford dry cleaning).
Sometimes I think the only thing that makes it possible for me to actually get on the plane is the multitude of retired ladies you find in airport waiting areas, lugging satchels, directing one another to the nearest restroom, chatting about how fast grandchildren grow. I find their presence inexpressibly comforting, and also that of their husbands, silver-haired gentlemen in John Deere caps who bond via discussions of the aircraft they have taken on this trip: A McDonnell-Douglas 80 from Tucson, a Boeing 7-4-7 to California. Men of retirement age never, I notice, say “MD-80” or “747.” They like to stretch the words and numbers out, to keep the machinery on their tongues as long as possible. Abbreviations, they imply, are not sufficiently respectful when referring to an invention as wonderful as an airplane.
These people are too nice to die, or at least they don’t deserve to die, so if I die along with them, I have the comfort of knowing that it really was a tragedy, and not just a failure of security. It’s easy to forget this, in the dehumanizing tangle of the checkpoint lines. “Security” and “threats” and “minimizing” and “responding” are jargon; they distract us from the real goal here: Keeping people alive, because they mostly deserve to be. I sit by my gate, freaked out and waiting to die, and listen to the woman across from me explain to her neighbor what she has in her shopping bag—cereal, for her daughter, from a shop in the airport where you can mix your own dry cereal from dozens of different bins; it’s called “Cereality,” isn’t that clever?—and I relax a tiny bit. Not enough to need a neck pillow, but enough to make a difference. Somewhere behind me a disembodied voice periodically booms “Stop! Do not enter!” I ignore it. I’m getting on the plane with the lady carrying the bag full of cereal. She’s the closest thing to security I’ve found.