Funny how your mind can wander when you're sitting and waiting. And waiting is something you may be doing a lot of in the months and years ahead-especially if you travel much by air. But the mindset may affect virtually everything we do.
I would report to you, after taking half a dozen trips by air since Sept. 11, that the fun's all gone now-except that the fun of flying by commercial airline had already disappeared long before Sept. 11. What during the 1990s had become a gritty but largely quiet endurance contest has now become a calculated endeavor to see who can control his or her temper the longest. In a zany effort to identify an isolated madman among the millions of fliers, many fliers may now be turned into madmen.
Could the Islamic extremists possibly have calculated how high the price tag of their terror might go? Not likely. I doubt if they included in their planning notes the lost productivity of hundreds of thousands of people waiting in line at airports throughout the country-as well as at border entrances, big office buildings, government installations, and military bases. Such lines, all by themselves, are costing our economy billions of dollars.
Nor did they likely reckon in any detail how, in spite of a remarkable unity that has bound us together nationally in some senses, we have at the very same time been pitted personally against each other across ticket counters, over the phone, and at boarding gates. Patience wears thin fast when you've paid big dollars to get somewhere, and then suddenly calculate: "I could've been there by now if I'd driven!" Columnist George Will had pointed out early in September, even before the monstrous crimes against our nation, that almost all trips of 400 miles or less are faster-and much less costly-by car than by air. Twice as true now, it's an equation that may radically change both the airways and the highways of our lives.
But the bureaucratic response to all this-however well intentioned-is degenerating now into sheer foolishness. The preoccupation with nail clippers and hair curlers has gone so far beyond common sense that you have to worry about the mindset setting all these new rules. The idea of sealing off the cockpit is, of course, absolutely sound; that should have been done years ago. But I tend to agree with a high-powered aviation security expert who predicted to me last week: "There will never be another successful hijacking of an airliner in America." After Sept. 11, there simply isn't a group of passengers anywhere that will tolerate it. There may be a little mayhem back there in the cabin, but no 50 or 100 or 150 passengers are going to sit idly by and let a handful of terrorists take over another plane-not ever again.
A few more than 40,000 people die every single year on our nation's highways. If our government responded with the same bureaucratic overkill to that terrible fact as it has to the threat of hijacked airplanes, you couldn't drive from Philadelphia to Washington without encountering identification checkpoints, breathalyzer tests, and a 20 mph speed limit. The three-hour drive might take 15 instead. There would indeed be fewer accidents. And the America you used to know would be a distant memory in everybody's rear-view mirror.
Do not get me wrong. The right kind of security and review is essential. No passengers should be allowed, of course, to carry firearms. But beyond that, a sort of "Second Amendment" in the air might be a very desirable thing. For there is no earthly way to keep dangerous items out of the hands of those who want to do evil. No checkpoint, no X-ray machine, not even a strip search of every passenger can disarm the person intent on violence. Table knives have been removed now from airport restaurants; ketchup bottles have not. Which, in a criminal's hands, is the more lethal weapon?
But that suggests the main point. Bureaucratic micromanagement-especially by the government and its agencies-is never the path to freedom and safety. What's happening right now with the airlines is a metaphor for a threat to our whole society that parallels the threat of fundamentalist Islam. Before this is over, the regulations could affect far more than your next trip by airplane.
If our only defense against the fanatical rulemakers over there is to make ourselves subservient to rulemakers over here, it's hardly a tradeoff that seems worth all the effort.