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Jewish World Review April 22, 2002 / 11 Iyar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

With our belts open,
where are we heading? | HARTFORD, Conn. The other passengers in the departure area of Bradley International Airport may have wondered why I was laughing.

In fact, I know they were - later, several of them asked me.

This certainly looked like no laughing matter. After all, there stood a passenger - I was that passenger - with his legs spread far apart, his arms extending straight out, his belt unbuckled and hanging down. All of this had been ordered by a security guard.

The guard had been patting me down, and now - with my belt open - he said:

"I'm going to be reaching down the front of your pants now."

This is when I laughed, and said to him:

"Now that's got to be a real dream come true for you."

He laughed, too, although not very long - our nation's unwritten Homeland Security rules do not encourage much public mirth. But in a situation like that - and it's happening every minute of the day, in airports all over the U.S. - if you don't laugh, you might as well cry. About what has already happened to us, and about what almost certainly is coming next.

I want to say right away: I'm not in any way objecting to the patdown and search. It's just the way things are since Sept. 11, 2001 - we all said that day that we knew our lives would be changing. As readers of this column know, John Glenn was subjected to the take-off-your-shoes-and-undo-your-belt search at an airport in California; World War II Medal of Honor combat pilot Joe Foss was searched at an airport in Arizona, and his Medal of Honor temporarily taken from him because security guards thought it looked suspicious. If John Glenn and Joe Foss are going to be frisked, the rest of us can and should recognize that this is the way things are now.

So to comment is not to complain. But comment is appropriate, because all of this is heading someplace pretty ominous - and I don't think that any of us, starting with Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, has any idea of where we're really going. Ridge, in his public appearances, always has this depressed and melancholy look about him, and I don't blame him.

If, a year ago, you had seen a man or woman near an airport boarding gate, in full view of the other passengers, ordered to stand spread eagled with belt unfastened while he or she was being aggressively patted down, you would think a federal fugitive had been apprehended.

Now? It's random - men and women are pulled out of line before virtually every airline flight to be publicly searched. It's routine, and we are told that it can and will happen to anyone.

(Although, after what I saw at an airport in Florida, I'm not completely buying the "random" part. There was a woman waiting to board a flight who had that centerfold look to her. She was doing nothing to act suspicious or draw attention to herself, other than being spectacularly physically attractive. As we lined up to board, I thought the private security guards were going to knock each other over, so eager were they to race to her and announce that she had been selected for a "random" patdown. From her expression, she had been through this in other airports. It was more than a little troubling - and what made it more so was the knowledge that none of us is empowered to object, at least effectively, to the screeners' decisions.)

And this is heading into increasingly more disturbing territory. In the airport in Aspen, Colo., a 14-year-old Pennsylvania high school student who had been visiting his grandparents was carrying a jug of stream water he had collected for a biology class assignment. A security guard reportedly directed the boy to take a drink from the jug. The boy, obeying authority, did - and later became painfully ill, apparently from what was in the dirty water. Security guards are permitted, even directed, to do this - to make citizens drink from unsealed containers, whether they contain creek water or something in a child's fruit-juice box.

It's maddening - and yet . . . . Had the boy had something flammable, or some sort of acid, in that jug, he would not have taken the sip - which would have alerted the guards something might be amiss. In these sad times, it's probably best - John Glenn could tell you, and so could Joe Foss - to take a deep breath, step back, and do our best to try to understand why all of this is happening. Even as we know, in our hearts, that it's not going to work - that when the next terror tragedy hits us, all of the random searches and forced gulps in the world won't have been enough to stop it. We're feeling our way in the dark.

So, with your belt undone and the man telling you he's about to reach into your pants, you laugh. It beats the alternative. I was going to make a joke with the screener about a certain airport metal-detector scene in "This Is Spinal Tap" - if you don't know the movie, I can't explain it here - but instead I said to him: "Boy, I don't envy your job."

He nodded his head and, one American citizen to another, said to me:

"I have a tie like yours at home."

And then proceeded.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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