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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2001 / 4 Kislev 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Flying with damaged trust -- CHAMPAIGN, Ill. | When 19 men crashed airplanes into big buildings on Sept. 11, we are told, it forever changed flying. But what does that mean?

Since Sept. 11, I have boarded 10 (soon to be 12) planes and have taken off from or landed in six different (soon to be seven) cities - Kansas City, Chicago, Raleigh-Durham, Cleveland, Hartford and Champaign.

Never once on those flights have I failed to imagine how it must have been for those doomed passengers on Sept. 11.

On one of my flights, I sat in row 21. On Sept. 11, my nephew, a passenger on the first flight to hit the World Trade Center, sat in row 20. He was - even more than usual - on my mind and in my heart on my trip that day.

And Monday's crash of an American Airlines jet in Queens - whatever the cause - was stinging salt in fresh wounds.

I fly angry now. I fly defensively, warily. I fly suspecting even old ladies. I fly with a deep, almost untouchable sadness. But I fly.

Just as security personnel suspect me of harboring murderous thoughts and weapons, so I suspect them of incompetence in searching people in line ahead of me and behind me. Even when our plane reaches cruising altitude and the empty air gets smooth and gentle, a small part of my brain waits for a smuggled bomb to explode in the luggage hold, scattering our ashes over bewildered pedestrians on the ground.

I don't mean to think this way, don't want to. But Sept. 11 has changed this for everyone, me included.

Flying is always dependent on trust. We trust that the plane has been thoroughly inspected and that it was built well in the first place. We trust the pilots, navigators and air traffic controllers will keep us aloft and not drop us screaming and helpless into an indifferent mountain or cold lake. And, historically, we passengers have trusted one another. But all that trust is unsteady now at best, shattered at worst, and needs to be rebuilt.

Because it was security screeners who failed to stop the hijackers bearing box cutters on Sept. 11, we don't trust them any more.

Because it was pilots who failed to prevent the hijackers from taking over the cockpits, we have doubts about them and the flimsy doors that separate them from us passengers. And because it was other passengers who committed unspeakable atrocities, we look askance at all fellow travelers - especially, sad to say, at people who resemble pictures of the hijackers.

We don't want to feel this way. Indeed, we often feel guilty about the profiling we do reflexively. But it's how we feel.

Each time passengers get up to use the restroom, we worry that they have evil in mind. Each bump of air turbulence is a sign of possibly fatal trouble. We look around to spot potential allies if trouble starts.

It's terrible to travel this way. I hate it and want to go back to how it used to be. But how it used to be is what helped the hijackers succeed - and we can never let that happen again. Ever.

So this is what we do: We get on planes in spite of it all and we fly. And when the wheels touch down, we smile a little inside and breathe easier. We fly now because if we don't, the people who killed my nephew and thousands of other good and cherished people win. If we don't fly, evil wins.

On the flight that brought me from Chicago here to the home of the University of Illinois, I sat next to a young man who appeared to be of mixed Middle Eastern or possibly Latin American extraction. He carried a large backpack. I wondered what was in it.

Before long he reached into it and pulled out an academic paper on polymers. It looked terribly complicated. Yes, he told me, he was a University of Illinois student. After two minutes of reading, he was asleep.

Or was he? And could I take him down if he tried something? That's how we are thinking these days.

We must not, of course, act on mere assumptions, but vigilance is the price we must pay to prevent someone from killing your nephew or wife or father or daughter. It's a price we all should be eager to pay, however much we rage at the cost.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved