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Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2001 / 11 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The uniforms and
badges that surround us -- A STORY with some of the most far-reaching implications for our country in the months and years to come appeared not in the main news section of the paper, but deep inside the travel section.

I cut it out and have been carrying it around for several weeks. With all of the death and destruction in the news since Sept. 11, this story -- or at least the part that caught my eye -- deals with what on the surface seems to be a very small matter.

But what it represents is potentially large, and troubling. And sooner or later, we as a nation are going to be discussing it.

The travel story, written by Heather Lajewski, concerned a trip she and her family made to Walt Disney World after Sept. 11.

Lajewski wrote about security measures she observed, at Disney World and in the airports.

At the Orlando airport, she wrote, a security guard was looking through her husband's briefcase, and found a nail clipper.

The airport guard -- without saying a word to Lajewski's husband -- broke the metal file from the nail clipper, then handed the rest of the clipper back.

Lajewski wrote that her husband became upset. It was an unsettling moment -- the airport worker, without a word of discussion, had confiscated the nail clipper, decided to break it, and had done so. To Lajewski's husband, this wasn't a matter of an inexpensive nail clipper -- it was a matter of someone in authority stepping over a certain line that we have long taken on faith in this country.

I spoke to Heather Lajewski about this; she told me that even after her husband had complained, and even after a supervisor had agreed that the situation had not been handled well, it happened again, although in a slightly different manner. A nail clipper was also found in Heather Lajewski's bag -- and the security guard said to her, "You know I need to break the file part off, OK?" Lajewski consented, and the file was snapped off.

Now . . . we all agree that steps must be taken to make airports safe. And after what happened Sept. 11, the question of how a nail clipper is handled at a security point would seem to rank far down the list of things Americans have time to be concerned about.

But we may be entering an era in which more and more uniformed people -- the majority of them not traditional police officers -- are having more and more control over our lives. Building entrances are going to be guarded more than ever before; personal possessions are going be be scrutinized like never before. We say we want this, in the name of safety.

We say it . . . but do we, or should we, really mean it?

A person wearing a uniform or carrying a badge -- even if the uniform is issued by a private company, and the badge has no more meaning than something you could buy at a toy store -- is given a great deal of power. The United States was founded on the very principle that certain individual rights are sacrosanct -- that there is a line that cannot, must not be stepped over.

As we enter this unknown new time in our history, are we really ready for people in uniforms to begin making decisions about our daily lives -- even small decisions -- that no one has given them the right to make? Yes, it was only a nail clipper in that airport -- and yes, we are nervous about dangerous objects being carried onto planes.

Still -- in that tiny moment when the uniformed guard, without a word, removed the clipper from the briefcase of the person in line, snapped part of the clipper off, then wordlessly returned the rest of it to the man who owned it, a million unspoken questions were raised. Do we complain at a moment like that -- or do we wait to complain until someone in a privately issued uniform demands our address and phone number before letting us pass? Or until someone knocks on our door and asks to have a look around our house, just for "security's" sake? Is that when we complain -- or do we hold back even then, and wait until the day we get home and the people in uniform are already inside looking around, because of "reports about the neighborhood" they are responding to?

We're going to be seeing more uniforms in the months and years to come, some of them unfamiliar. We're going to be hesitant to say if it bothers us. These are supposed to be patriotic times, after all. Define patriotism.

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

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