|By A.D. Freudenheim||
3 December 2001
The pretense towards a better, constant level of security is everywhere. Recently, on an American Airlines flight I took to Los Angeles, the captain made the usual series of announcements about travel time, estimate arrival, and the weather, and then followed these up by making a statement designed to allay passengers' fears about air travel: the airplane has a reinforced cockpit door, he said, one which can only be opened from the inside (and he announced he had no intention of opening it mid-flight); furthermore, he informed us, there are a number of Sky Marshals on-board, all well-prepared to handle any emergencies that presented themselves.
Perhaps others were calmed by this, but for me it was only a reminder of the problems that remain to be addressed in a post-11 September United States - issues such as airplane maintenance, which may have been a factor in the American Airlines flight to the Dominican Republic a couple of weeks ago, a plane that ripped apart minutes after takeoff and collapsed to earth in a series of fireballs. Most airplane accidents in recent years have been the result of some combination of mechanical failure or human error - not terrorism.
For this reason, my pilot's comments on the security of our airplane were not especially reassuring. I have flown a few times since the attacks of 11 September, despite what I consider to be poor security at most United States airports. But frankly, I consider those attacks to be an anomaly, events completely outside the norm, and although I take the concerns for better security seriously, I am mostly amused by the rampant idiocy travelers must now put up with: every straight piece of metal longer than two inches, as well as many other objects that might, under the right circumstances, acquire a sharp edge, are banned from airplanes. Ironic considering the way we continue to treat checked bags on most domestic flights, which by and large remains un-x-rayed or otherwise put through a security check.
This situation mirrors on the small scale what is taking place in our country in much broader terms: we are making what we believe to be choices and compromises in favor of "security" as means of ignoring some much more basic issues of "maintenance." More to the point, our government is making those choices for us. For example, under the guidance of President Bush and his administration, we are being lead to believe that only through military tribunals can true justice be achieved for those non-citizens we suspect might be aiding and abetting terrorist groups; this, we are told, is a security issue. Certainly for the Bush administration, it is much easier to address the possibility of someone's "criminal" behavior under circumstances in which only a limited defense is allowed, most evidence or documentation cannot be disclosed or examined, and the people making the decision as to guilt or innocence are those who have pledged their lives to the security of our country. This also translates into being able to publicize a series of well-timed government actions, eventually announcing that so many people were tried, so many more punished, a few more deported, and perhaps some even put to death. All this in the name of security, and at the cost of basic maintenance - diverting our intellectual as well our financial resources from the improving other aspects of life in America.
We are not asking ourselves the right questions. The question isn't "Should airplanes have reinforced cockpit doors?" Of course, they probably should. The question really should be "Should airplanes have reinforced cockpit doors if it means that one mechanic or one engineer takes a less-thorough look at some other part of an airplane that normally gets inspected, or if one piece of luggage goes un-examined?" Similarly, when we make it easier for the government to prosecute people, when we expand the power of law enforcement agencies to tap our phones or read our mail, or to detain us without the counsel of a lawyer, are we aiding the fight for better security? Probably, in the short-run - but at what price?
We should not be in the position of choosing between sacrificing or compromising basic civil rights in order to address ostensibly short-term administrative goals. Once we start overlooking infringements on our liberties - in the name of security, or anything else - it will be difficult to get them back intact.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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