For air travelers the world has turned over several times since 11 September 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, tight-lipped fliers endured ad-hoc security arrangements with stoicism, realizing that it would be much more pleasurable to take one’s shoes off in an airport full of strangers than to fly into a skyscraper. On a flight to Fort Lauderdale in March 2002, I came off the plane and faced three soldiers toting submachine guns. On a flight home from Amsterdam two months later, I took off my shoes four times during inspections, and marveled when a customs agent rustled through the suitcase of the man in front of me, ignoring two bags of marijuana in his search.
Nearly four years later, with customs agents and airport personnel federalized on both sides of the Canadian-American border, security matters are routinized and bureaucratized. Passengers still take their shoes off, now without being asked, and endure gropes that would constitute assault on the street.
The new American national security state -- the domestic face of the republic’s new global imperium -- is now in place, and its hallmark is insecurity, especially in its determination to secure its borders against all adversarieswhoever, whatever, or wherever they may be.
This latter point hit home during a recent trip to California, where two incidents reminded me, despite being at Pearson airport, that I was not in Ontario anymore. The first involved two apples that my companion hoped to bring on board to supplement the meagre fare that now passes for in-flight sustenance. When my companion declared “ pasta and two apples,” an unsmiling American agent immediately confiscated the fruit, hissing through pursed lips something about Fijian apples carrying diseases (Canadian apples wouldn’t have passed muster these days either).
Next, my companion asked if we might eat the apples right theretwo chairs stood waiting for us to occupy. “No, that’s impossible!” the agent declared, and that was that. Terrorist apples no doubt. They went quickly into the garbage, while Virg Allegrini’s pasta walked right through the gate. The following day, shopping at an upscale market in the Oakland hills, we noted piles of Fijian apples for sale. Go figure.
The second incident occurred moments later, after we paused for a drink of bottled water at an airport bistro. I wanted a photo of my partner after the apple saga, and took three with my digital camera. Unfortunately, I was quickly informed, the “background” to the shots, the area where carry-ons went through the X-Ray machine, was a “restricted and secured” area.
So I assured the functionary that I would not shoot any more photos, and then looked more closely at the “restricted and secured” space to which he referred. It was, in fact, neither restricted nor secured, but something more like your teenager’s bedroom on Sunday morning. The space looked as though a bomb had hit itbags, computers, and valises every which wayand nothing formal in sight. As another traveler put it, the security area featured a crushing anti-formality, with “incredibly shabby and inefficient physical arrangements for this depressing process.”
Certainly the security venue merely heightened anxiety and annoyance. It did nothing to enhance ideas of safety or feelings of sanity. Current security procedures prove that the main items one needs to fly and survive today’s unfriendly skies are humour and an advanced sense of the absurd. One gets the feeling that for all the hustle and bustle going on in the name of security, airports and the planes that call them home are not really secure at all.
This feeling of popular and elite insecurity pervaded life in the next two weeks as seen from the San Francisco Bay Area. First, California Governor Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, his popularity fading in recent polls, hit the race button when he suddenly called for “the closing of the Mexican border” against illegal immigrants. The issue of illegal immigration from the south was ostensibly decided by the courts several years ago, and even President George W. Bush noted recently that any willing labourer from abroad should be able to link up legally with U.S. employers.
The Governor later clarified his statement by explaining that his English had slipped and that he did not want to close the border after all, merely secure it. Yet no matter their contributions to local economies, Mexican immigrants seeking better lives rankle many Americans living along the long border with the United States. Recently, alarmed Arizonans created their own “Minutemen” units to supplement the work of border agents representing Homeland Security and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In Northern California, meanwhile, heeding Schwarzenegger’s words, a group of retirees formed their own vigilante watch-dog group, using a six-seat Cessna to patrol the coast north of San Francisco, looking for terrorists, illegal immigrants, anything out of the ordinary. Civil liberties groups worry that these self-appointed and untrained patriots will turn citizen against citizen.
But no matter. These are tremulous times in the United States. As we headed for the airport for our return flight to the sanity of Canada, we heard on the radio that an unidentified plane had violated “secure” airspace in Washington, D.C. That plane turned out to be another single-engine Cessna, flown by two lost pilots from Pennsylvania. But their wayward craft, half the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle and flying more slowly than many Beltway speeders, forced evacuation of the Capitol Building, White House, and Supreme Court. That’s all three branches of government.
Do Americans feel safer these days? Not at all.