Washington, D.C. December 2001

Squishier than thou

Demonstrating against reality in London and Washington

Traveling to London from Washington twelve days after the terrorist attack, I expected security measures. I'd been told to arrive at Dulles Airport three hours before departure. I was ready for checkpoints where people in flak jackets would use mirrors to look for bombs under cars—although with automotive electronics and the puzzle plumbing of emissions control, everything under cars looks like a bomb. Anyway, the checkpoints weren't there.

At the ticket counter, instead of being asked once "Hasyourluggagebeenunderyourcontrolatalltimes?," I was asked twice. The metal detectors and x-ray machines were operated by the usual dim but friendly minimum-wage security guards, now somewhat less friendly. I was told to hand over my disposable lighter, to prevent, I suppose, any threat of "Do what I say or I'll light this Marlboro and you'll all die—in thirty years, owing to inhalation of secondhand smoke."

I headed cheerlessly to the designated smoking area, expecting to find a room full of desperate, fireless people paying black-market prices for Nicorette. Everyone was smoking. I asked for a light, and someone produced a disposable lighter. It seems that if you went through one of the airport's two security portals, you were made to surrender all lighters and matches. But if you went through the other ...

Concern has been voiced that fear of terrorism could lead to renewed racial profiling. Never mind that the languages of the Taliban—Pashto and Dari—are part of the Indo-European linguistic family, and that if "Caucasian" has any meaning at all, Afghans have a better claim to it than Hungarians or Finns.

The profiling at the boarding gate couldn't be called racial, exactly. The ruddy and the pallid were ushered directly onboard, as were the sufficiently black. It was the tanned or swarthy who had to line up for additional questioning. On my flight these included, as far as I could tell, some Hindus, some Filipinos, a Hispanic or two, and a pair of elderly Iranian women wearing chadors in violation of America's new no-unusual-things-on-your-head taboo, which has brought grief to Sikhs in the U.S. hinterland. (Not that there hasn't been Sikh terrorism, but it was directed against Indira Gandhi, in retaliation for the Indian army's storming the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This isn't an issue at the moment, but the complexities of building an international coalition against terrorism could be illustrated if India demands a wholesale revocation of Sikh cab licenses in New York, thereby bringing that city to a halt again.)

An English friend asked me, Would a bald chap who was sunburned and gardening and put a tea towel on his head be in trouble in America?

My plane was two-thirds empty. But the unflappable British flight crew was unflapped. I was not subjected to the indignity that an acquaintance suffered on a flight from New York to Chicago. He was made to press the flight-attendant call button and identify himself before being allowed to go to the bathroom. This—for a drinking man in the enlarged-prostate years—is a serious violation of civil rights.

The people I know in London were in the same state of shock and anger as the people I know in America. And, like my American friends, they weren't particularly frightened of a second terrorist strike or of poison gas or germ warfare. But this may be a matter of being old smokers and drinkers, at an age for cardiac arrest and malignancy, with children they'd like to see grow up or at least get a damn job, and retirement funds that have gone to hell in the past year. How much more frightening can life get?

The Brits, however, were more likely to raise the subject of the IRA and say a word about America's leading the fight against terrorism while letting the NORAID cans be passed in the bars of Southie and the Bronx. I blamed the Kennedys—always a safe course when questions of bad U.S. political policies are raised. Meanwhile, it's the British themselves who are at the negotiating table with my moron cousins from Ulster. Personally, I'd start the war on terrorism with Gerry Adams. At least we know where he is.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ireland's Troubled North" (October 30, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles on Northern Ireland helps put the current easing of political tensions in perspective.

Incidentally, it's ridiculous if you're Irish to claim that you can't fathom the mindset behind the wild destruction of innocents, the casual self-murder, and the bathos of martyrdom on September 11. Al Qaeda no doubt has a Yeats of its own—"A terrible beauty is born."

But there was something going on in Great Britain that was squishier than Northern Ireland home-rule concessions. The September 17 issue of The New Statesman ran an amazing editorial leader.

Look at the picture on pages 6-7, showing Americans running in terror from the New York explosions and then ask yourself how often in the past (particularly in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq) you have seen people running in terror from American firepower. American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no.

To quote more might set off a wave of retribution in America against people wearing derby hats.

I had dinner with the critic and television commentator Clive James and his assistant. The assistant was an able and well-educated young woman who could not be convinced by Clive that in the matter of moral values there was such a thing as a superior culture. "They cover their women in the ballroom drapes!" Clive said. "Your dad can have you stoned to death for not marrying some old goat!"

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