Insecurity screeners: America's increasingly bankrupt airport culture
I'm flying around the country today, bouncing from small town to hub city to hub city to small town, working the hub system and crossing three time zones. You'd think that, given the distance I'm covering, my attention would be on the differences I'm seeing between the different regions I'm flying through: Northeast, South, Midwest and Southwest.
You'd think that these differences would stand out only if you weren't someone who has any experience with air travel in the United States. If you've flown at all in the last twenty years, you know how airports have become strangely culture-free. Dominated by the expedience of commerce and security, American airports are pretty much the same no matter where you are.
I'll admit, there are some differences from place to place. Different airports place tokens of the individualities of the cities that host them out on display in airtight glass cases. Missoula, Montana's airport has a big stuffed bear. The Memphis airport has pictures of Elvis Presley and other dead musicians, next to vacuum-closed bottles of barbeque sauce. Then there are the local differences in security requirements. One airport requires a photo ID at the security checkpoint, while another only requires a boarding pass at the same place. Both airports will insist that such small details of its security plan are specially designed to protect airplanes against the hoards of terrorists who are at present swarming around airport ticket counters, going hungry because they can't get to the food courts past the security gates. Then again, in the New Mexico airport where I'm waiting for my last flight of the day, I was allowed to go straight from ticketing to my gate without having to go through any security at all.
Beyond such rituals of security, however, American airport environments are disconcertingly alike from region to region. Moving from airport to airport, it's impossible even to say, "It's Thursday, so this must be Omaha," because American domestic travelers often fly in rapid skips through many airports in a given day. Fast food, expensive conveniences, banks of pay phone booths and strange grayish-blue carpet mix with bland "news shops" that sell magazines that can be read through in a 45-minute flight and a small collection of glossy books with shiny metallic titles like "An Affair of Roses".
Let me be fair. There are also some other books available in airport book stores. Business books like "Who Moved My Cheese?" seem to be popular. There are also usually a few splashy books written by TV and talk radio personalities. The covers on these books almost never relate to a topical subject matter. Instead, the book covers of this genre consist of nothing more than photographs of the authors looking very proud of themselves. With covers like these, the titles of these books could be "As Seen On TV" or "As Promoted On The Radio".
Oh, I know it's not wise to judge a book by its cover. Let's judge a book by its subtitle instead. There's one of these angry books out in the airport book stores right now that's caught my attention this trip. Its main title, like the title of so many books written by media personalities, is nothing more than a play on the author's own name. The subtitle, however, is startlingly odd: "Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Borders, Language and Culture".
As I read this book's strange subtitle, I notice two things that disturb me. First, the obviously conservative author mixes up the definite word "America" with the indefinite word "our". The question arises, who is the us that the author refers to with the word "us". You might think that he's just referring to Americans in a lazy way. You would be wrong.
This brings me to the second thing I noticed about the subtitle "Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Borders, Language and Culture": The author is clearly putting liberals off to the side. This subtitle implies that not only are liberals not "us", whoever "us" is, but also suggests that liberals are not Americans. The grammatical structure of the subtitle is based upon the assumption that liberals are something unAmerican. After all, the subtitle implies America must be saved from liberals.
Where do these liberals who are attacking America come from anyway? Canada? France?
It's with crude linguistic devices like the phrasing of this ratty book I keep seeing in airport bookstores that conservative ideologues have begun the attempt to roughly evict liberals from the community of Americans. These conservatives try to possess America all for themselves, declaring anyone who disagrees with them to be anti-American, as if they have the power to force liberals into exile.
Actually, many conservatives do want to force liberals into exile. Among the many retorts that we get here at Irregular Times is the suggestion that if we don't like the policies of George W. Bush, we can leave the country. You see, conservatives believe that liberals all have some kind of secret foreign homeland, perhaps in Sweden.
I can't speak for all liberals, but it truly frightens me that the people supporting the man who currently occupies the White House are actually saying that all dissenters, liberals especially, should be kicked out of the country. Even when Newt Gingrich and his crew were trying to overthrow the President of the United States for having oral sex, you didn't hear any liberals saying that if conservatives didn't like Bill Clinton getting some action, they ought to go live in The Vatican or Singapore. The urge to conduct political purges through forceable exile seems to be a uniquely conservative phenomenon.
I read in the news that the right wing supporters of George W. Bush are discussing the benefits of putting dissident Americans in detention camps if there continue to be large anti-war protests. There's some indication that the Bush Administration has developed some contingency for detention camps. I'd like to believe that enough sane advisors remain in the Executive Branch to prevent such a maneuver.
However, we're hearing more stories about American citizens being detained without trial every day. Heck, a woman who lives down the road from me says she got visited on her farm a few weeks back by two government agents just because she got a phone call from someone in a suspicious country. They told her they could detain her without telling anyone where she was if she didn't cooperate with them.
I'm looking around really hard, but I just can't see any attack on America by a liberal conspiracy. What I do see is that conservatives are trying to restrict the rights of some Americans who don't pass their extremist tests of reactionary political correctness.
To see so many books suggesting that only people with particular political beliefs are really American pop up in airport bookstores is disheartening to me. I've always thought of airports as hopeful places that represent Americans' willingness to move and mix with each other, to learn and to accept political differences as something that make our country an interesting place to live. It's a shameful statement on how much political thinking in our country has deteriorated to see our airports dominated by publications that encourage Americans to cast out people who don't agree with the federal government.
Conservatives seem to revel in each new step to make our airports into centers of fearful examination of anyone who appears out of the ordinary ("Ordinary" meaning white, Christian, clean-cut and travelling on business). The Republican heads of the Department of Transportation are now beginning to implement a system to assemble profiles of people who travel by airplane within the United States. Personal information such as credit ratings, medical history and travel patterns are being assembled so that "suspicious" types of Americans can get extra attention through "private searches". Other sources of information may also be used in airport evaluations as well, but no one knows what these sources will be.
The Department of Transportation says that it's putting this surveillance system in place in order to "make us safer". I wonder - who do they mean when they say "us"? I have feeling that they're not talking about people like me. I wonder if I'll be identified as "suspicious". I wonder how long it will take before the only people able to use our nation's airports without being harassed will be the "real Americans" that conservative authors say need to be defended from "liberal assault".
American airports have long been homogeneous environments that display only elements of the conservative cultural and corporate aspect of American society. Until now, this homogeneity has been just for show, a matter of aesthetics. Sadly, the time may now have come when the narrow airport view of American culture will be enforced through government controls on which kinds of Americans deserve to fly and which ones do not.
An irregular advisory: if you plan to travel by air in the near future, be sure to bring your ticket, a government identification card, and a straight and narrow personal history. If you don't fit into the conservative vision of what it means to be an American, you may soon find yourself living in a no-fly zone much like the ones the U.S. government has established over Iraq.
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