A Different Kind of Security Theater Problem

The singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert has put up a riveting account of a run-in with airline security a few days ago.

It's not like most of the accounts of pointless security-theater we've all read. When I see them, I often think: Yeah, I can imagine something like that happening to me.

My reaction in this case was, Actually, I bet that wouldn't happen to me. Not to spoil the surprise, but: Vance Gilbert and I are both middle-aged men over six feet tall, even born in the same city. But I am as you see above, and he is as you see below. And it is impossible not to think that this made the difference.


To spell it out, as he puts it in his note: he was Flying While Black. When we were living in Japan during its boom years, I noticed instantly the way women would grab their purses extra tight when I was coming down the other side of the street at night, or how parents would be extra careful with their children around us. The Japanese people weren't even aware of this involuntary tensing; of course we noticed every flinch. For now I won't go into my whole theory of where and in what circumstances people of different races are made to feel the burden of race -- the pressure of it playing so large a part in your identity. Or how hard it is for white Americans to really imagine that pressure, since to be white in America is in most circumstances to be able to forget about race (your own). I'll just say that the theme comes through very powerfully in Gilbert's account. [And of course in this famous Louis CK bit.]

As a side benefit, as you will see, the story shows how we have essentially criminalized being interested in airplanes. One of the many changes to note in our upcoming 9/11 reflections.

For a sample of Vance Gilbert singing, poignantly in this case, "Citizen of the World," there is a clip at Amazon. Thanks to reader JC in Massachusetts. ALSO: More from Arlington Patch, including this photo, by Jeff Schorfheide, of Gilbert clad as he describes in his post:


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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