Stripping our sense of security

I hate myself for doing this. Really, I do. It’s old and tired and perhaps a bit washed-up. And yet, I cannot help myself. Our post-9-11 world just can’t get enough of 9-11.

I thought I was above it. Or maybe beyond it (yes, beyond), but during my two-hour layover in Chicago last week, a miserable time spent eating a $10 slice of pizza and nursing a $6 Heineken while watching Cub fans be beyond it, I realized I am not. So long as we claim to do things in the name of safety and security, I will inevitably find myself alone in an airport in anywhere USA with nothing better to do than point my finger (I said I hated myself for doing this).

But before we go anywhere, let’s start here, in Portland. It’s November 2001 and I’m flying to South Dakota for a wedding. I’m nervous, not because I should be, but because everyone around me is giving me reason to be. They’re talking, of course, about 9-11 and mechanical failures and shoe bombs.

They’re saying things like “Even if your plane’s not hijacked, it could still collide with a mountain or explode on the runway. I cannot believe you are going to make this trip.”

All the while I’m thinking to myself, “Obviously, you’ve never been to Mount Rushmore.”

And, “What if they’re right?”

Airport security that Thanksgiving alleviated my fears. Not only was my ID checked three times before I boarded the plane, but a few days later my boots were searched in South Dakota before making the trip home.

Security equals safety. Or is it the other way around?

Fast forward to 2003.

This time I’m making a nine-week trip to Europe, for which I purchased my ticket online. I arrive at the airport with my tickets, ticket receipt, passport and extra ID, all of which I hand to the airline agent upon check-in. She takes my tickets and hands back my receipt and ID without so much as a picture check.

“No problem,” I think. “They’ll get me at security.”

At security, the agent takes both my ticket and ID and, without checking either, hands them back.

“No problem,” I think. “They’ll get me at the gate.”

At the gate, the flight attendant takes both my ticket and ID and, without checking my ID, scans my ticket and allows me to board.

“This is a problem,” I thought.

And it’s a problem that grew larger in my mind as my trip went on. In Amsterdam, the Dutch customs agent practically threw my passport back to me before letting me pass. Not once was I bothered in Germany, and on the day I rode my bicycle from Konstanz, Germany, across to Switzerland, the border crossing was unmanned.

I was fine in France and Denmark and Sweden. And when I traveled outside the European Union, to Norway, I was fine there, too.

When I took a plane from Stockholm to Paris, the Ryan Air ticket agent checked my passport once. But later in Amsterdam, on my way home, a quick flash of that dark blue cover and I was waved through the gate. No questions asked. No problems. At least not for me. I did watch a fellow citizen, a middle-aged Asian American man, have his bags emptied and searched.

Back in Portland, the border agent asked nothing of extra bags I carried off the plane. He only questioned if I had any fun.

Yes, I had fun. Wouldn’t you if you could go anywhere, do anything?

I hear what the people are saying. Even now, two years later, they are calling 9-11 a wake-up call. Policy is giving us a sense of security, while out there, in anywhere USA and beyond, people are proving me otherwise.

Just two weeks ago, I went to Vancouver, B.C., for the weekend. As my friend and I approached the border, we realized my friend had forgotten her passport. When the border agent asked to see her birth certificate, my friend confessed to not having that, either. The agent told us we needed one of the other to enter the country, then let us pass without. On the way home, the U.S. agent took one look at the string bikini hanging in the back of the car and waved us through without question.

Could someone please remind me why we feel so safe?