by Eric Lucas
We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
I was thinking about FDR’s famous axiom during my adventures on a particularly gruesome golf hole in Arizona over the New Year holiday. Afraid of slicing my drive right I hooked it left into the desert. Afraid of overshooting the hole, I hit a weak chip into a sand trap. Afraid of not reaching the green, I blasted out of the sand completely over the hole. Afraid of a knee-shaking downhill putt, I came up 3 feet short of the hole. Next putt—right by it, like a locomotive, afraid of coming up short again.
Despite those travails, it was a beautiful day in the Arizona sun.
I flew there from my home in Seattle. Not afraid.
That makes me different from the most important air travelers in our world today, the government officials who set transportation security policy. They are all scared to death—not of terrorism, so much, but of being blamed for it. FDR was right about fear when he prefaced his response to the Great Depression. We need to remember his thought before we wind up flying around the world buck naked, handcuffed and, as LA Times commentator David Steinberg puts it, wearing padded headgear so we can’t use our skulls to bash open a window to bring a plane down.
Wow—could a terrorist really do that?
Maybe. It’s one of thousands of ways creative anarchists, jihadists, Chetniks, Trotskyites, Phalangists, Shining Pathers and who-knows-else could attempt to bring down airplanes. Almost every time I get on a plane my wandering mind cooks up some new idea about how bad guys could make mischief on it, near it or with it; a perverse mind-game that also comes up unbidden when I cross a major bridge, go by a dam, drive under an interstate electric transmission line. I don’t think I’m giving away state secrets if I mention that a well-coordinated attack on major electric substations could grind American life to a halt for a few days. No Facebook; no American Idol. I’m sure other imaginative people can think up thousands of other ways.
Can we screen against them all? Tightening our borders won’t do it: 9/11 was awful, but we seem to have forgotten that the 2nd-worst US terrorist attack was a home-grown bombing featuring fertilizer, common industrial chemicals and two white-as-Wonder-bread US Army veterans who probably couldn’t spell “mosque” at gunpoint.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t pursue sensible preventive measures. That may include effective (and efficient) screening for air travelers, and if governments around the world decide to sink billions of dollars (and euros) into full-body scanners, sobeit. It’s better than spending those billions on bombs that we lob on remote villages in the hope a radical imam will be getting a manicure that day.
But whatever we do needs to preserve the underlying rhythms of daily life, or it advances the real terrorist agenda, which is to damage the fabric of society sufficiently that it shrinks in on itself. Each time we belatedly react in an excess of fear to a new incident, we are strangling our own cultural vitality, not to mention overshooting the target. Forbidden to move on airplanes for the last hour of flight? Not only is this silly, air travel experts point out that were the passengers on flight 253 not able to move about, they’d have been unable to subdue the would-be Christmas Day bomber.
It’s a shame that travel is the arena for most of this, because travel is the best single anti-terrorist strategy. The more that human beings meet and learn about each other, the less we are inclined to hold to suspicion, bitterness and hate. I’ve been to many places where anti-American violence has been rife in my lifetime, such as Serbia and China; each trip erased cultural misimpressions on both sides. Yes, I know the 9/11 attackers lived among us for years without softening their zealotry. However, we are all more likely to die at the hands of a beer-sodden Bubba driving a Dodge pickup than Ahmad setting off an underwear bomb. In the nine years since 9/11, drunk drivers have slaughtered about 150,000 people in the United States, while terrorists have killed zero. Which problem ought to provoke emergency action?
Not wishing to be killed by a drunk driver, I always wear my seat belt and avoid driving late at night as much as possible. I consider those judicious precautions that do not constrict my life in any way. Would that we could approach air travel security similarly. Bill Wilson called fear the corrosive thread that ruins lives. It ruins human societies, too.
I believe the best way to fight terrorism is to get out there in the world, unafraid, and shake every hand we can. I will do exactly that this new year.
Eric Lucas lives in Seattle; learn more at his website, www.TrailNot4Sissies.com.
Update: Since this article first appeared, the new heightened security ethos has protected the traveling public from a doofus quoting Gilligan's Island, a half-dozen bottles of backyard honey (yum) and my own cloth Ace elbow brace. Not to mention countless little girls with dolls, gray-haired ladies with midriff bulges and people from Cuba. As Garrison Keillor puts it, it's heartening to know we are all on alert for underwear explosions.