|By A.D. Freudenheim||
8 October 2001
For every big geopolitical movement, there are small-scale effects, and some are harsher than others. Having spent a couple of days in blissful ignorance in the wilderness of Massachusetts, I awoke this morning to the news that the United States had initiated a series of bombing raids against Afghanistan. While the impact that this must be having on the civilians of Afghanistan is appalling to me, despite the repeated statements by the U.S. government that we are not against that "people" of Afghanistan, just Osama bin Laden and the government that harbors him - decrying this will not be my goal today. I am already on record as opposing the kind of bombing attacks the U.S. has now undertaken, and do not feel the need to repeat that point at present.
Instead, I will share a result of this bombing that is felt a little closer to home. I drove back to New York City from Massachusetts today, with perfect fall weather: sunny blue skies and crisp, cool air all the way down through Massachusetts, all of Connecticut, and on into suburban New York. The traffic was heavy much of the way, and so it was slow-going at times; but it was also nearing rush-hour as we passed through Connecticut and a little traffic is not unexpected.
Things began to move smoothly again at the border between Connecticut and New York, and most of the delays could be seen on the other side of the road - a heavily traveled commuter road carrying people leaving New York City after a day at work. This was as it should be, given the hour and the number of cars involved. (Frankly, New York City should impose a much more aggressive series of commuter tolls on drivers, particularly single-occupancy drivers, who commute in and out of New York in their cars instead of taking public transportation, but this is a large topic for another article.) However, about 8 miles from the Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects the Bronx to Manhattan, the southbound traffic came to a halt, picking up to no more than a slow (5-10 miles per hour, at best) crawl for the next two hours.
Shortly, I found out why: an electronic sign informed me that all traffic was being put through a police check up ahead. Ah-ha! While I am an ardent civil libertarian, I also try to be realistic; given the kick-off of an American bombing campaign against Afghanistan, and the understanding that this could lead to renewed terrorist attacks against the U.S., I decided that the imposition of checking each car was one I could live with. I also didn't have much choice, but at least I could decide to relax as much as possible and accept that the delays were all for a good cause.
What I did not know at the time was that the delays were unnecessary and the security an illusion. After crawling forwards at a sickening pace for almost two hours, the two lane road was forcibly narrowed by bright orange traffic cones into lane; this made sense I said to myself, since it would be that much easier to check the drivers. Several more minutes passed, and we got closer to the checkpoint; we could see the flashing lights up ahead. I had preemptively taken my drivers license and wallet out of my pocket and put it on the dashboard, and I waited for the questions about why I have a New York drivers license for a car registered in Washington, D.C.
Instead, nothing happened. We rolled forward, moving close to ten miles per hour now, and in front of us were three state troopers, flanking the one open lane, looking at us; behind them was a large set of spot-lights shining down on us. I prepared to be motioned to stop, yet they did not move; they did not wave me forward, but they did not indicate they wanted me to stop. I kept moving, and ahead of me opened up more than four lanes: the Henry Hudson Bridge. I was almost home - and totally confused.
A drive that normally takes no more than four hours took slightly more than seven. The periodic news reports on the radio offered only glimpses into the destruction being wreaked on Afghanistan in the name of Americans everywhere, and gave little-to-no indication that there was increased security guarding cities across the U.S. I spent three extra hours in a car, trying to stretch in cramped quarters, wasting gas, and time and energy, and at the end what I came across was a security checkpoint that looked to be as effective as the ones at American airports. Unless there is a tremendous psychological power involved here - that the potential checkpoint will be so vigorous that no would-be terrorist would want to risk passing through it - I am mystified as to the efficacy of three state troopers standing, staring at my car, in the early evening light.
I think we are living in a land of confusion, and among other things, what we have confused are the tradeoffs to living in a society that is, by and large, incredibly free and open. I like America that way, and I do not want to change it, yet as I said: I accept that there are some tradeoffs to that liberty: if I want to fly, then I must be prepared to undergo strong scrutiny, in order to help safeguard the other passengers as well as myself; purchasing a plane ticket should be an acknowledgement on the part of the passenger that this tradeoff between security and freedom is understood. It is a consensual arrangement, because flying is not a right, but a privilege. Similarly, when I am presented with a sign informing me that a checkpoint is up ahead on the highway, I could always take the nearest exit - but if I continue, then implicitly, I am acknowledging that I will receive the same scrutiny as everyone else, and should be prepared to accept it. Driving, too, is a privilege and not a right.
However, this only works if the government and our security forces are fulfilling their side of the bargain - checking each airline passenger carefully, or scrutinizing each driver. As I pulled away onto the bridge, I looked in my rear-view mirror for a few seconds; all the cars behind me had continued onwards, just like me. Weary, but making our way into Manhattan. I still do not really know what the police thought they were looking for, nor am I likely to know if they ever found it. But the experience left me feeling only more concerned about the state of this nation, and hoping for a way out of the confusion.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.