Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2001 / 16 Teves, 5761
The day that America heard the
locks click shut
ORLANDO | The other day, in newspapers all
across the country, the usual list of
this-date-in-history items appeared. You know
the lists: Many papers run them every day.
Such-and-such a king was born on this date in
1583, such-and-such an invention was come up
with in 1824, such-and-such a sports record was
set in 1917.
On this particular morning, the list included a date that likely has influenced
our lives more profoundly than we customarily stop to think about. No one
will ever declare it a national holiday, nor should they; most of us don't have
any idea when exactly this event occurred.
But it happened in January of 1973. As the item in the this-date-in-history list
"U.S. airlines began routine preflight scanning of passengers with electronic
weapons detectors in a move to reduce hijackings."
That's how long it has been now: 28 years. Children who have been born in
the time since then -- and many of those children are adults now -- have no
memory at all of things ever being different. You go to an airport, you stand in
line, and you and your possessions are electronically frisked. There's not the
least controversy about it -- if you're going to fly, you're funneled through the
Yet all through the air age before 1973, this didn't happen. You drove out to
the airport, you walked up to the gate, you boarded the plane, and you went.
Who checked you to make sure you weren't carrying explosives or
No one did.
Because they just didn't -- the assumption was that you (and not just you;
every passenger on the plane) were a sane person of good disposition, and of
course you would not do anything deadly on the flight.
Today, if the government were to announce that it was going back to the old
way -- that airports were returning to being wide open, that all passengers
were free to simply walk on board -- there would undoubtedly be protests
from the public. Would you want to get onto a plane on which the passengers
had been assured no one was going to check any of them? Would you bet
your life on the goodwill of every fellow passenger?
That's why the January date in 1973 is so symbolic. It was a dividing line.
Think of all the things that are a part of our daily lives today that weren't in
January of 1973:
Offices in which we are required to carry electronic key cards to gain access
to our work areas. Government buildings with airport-style security sheds at
each entrance, and uniformed guards watching everyone who passes through.
Over-the-counter medicine bottles that are triple-sealed so that we will know
if anyone has tried to tamper with what's inside. Cameras pointed at us
everywhere we go, sending video signals to unseen men and women who are
paid to keep an eye on us, and be alert to the possibility of us doing
something unusual. Hotels in which room locks and keys are electronically
reconfigured every time one guest checks out and another checks in.
Good ideas? You can make the argument that they are -- that without them,
our lives would be much less secure.
But somehow, from the founding of this nation all the way up to 1973, we
managed to get along without these devices. Somehow -- before the metal
detectors and all their surveillance-and-protection offspring were bestowed
upon us -- we (or, more correctly, our forebears) lived lives unlocked.
On that January day in 1973, it didn't seem that the world was changing
forever; on that January day the arrival of the metal detectors at the airports
seemed mostly like a curiosity. But that was the beginning; that was the
inscribing of the line. Would we have accepted it so unquestioningly, had we
known what was ahead? Would we have paid it so little heed, had we been
told that the metal detectors were only a preview of how we would be soon
exist in a society ceaselessly striving for airtightness?
Probably. Probably we would have grudgingly said: Yes. Go ahead. Why? In
the name of security. That's what we called it then, and that's what we call it
now. Security. A funny word to use, to describe an era so insecure and
nervous that even our grandparents who survived the Great Depression and
two world wars would, if they were still around, shake their heads at the
standardized national skittishness.
And wordlessly line up to be X-rayed and metal-detected before flying off to
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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