Liberty gets a pat-down

Published on: November 26, 2010



In 1975, Dad took me on a trip from our small, rural hometown to the big city of Minneapolis. We went to a Twins baseball game (outdoors where it is meant to be played) and then to the international airport to watch the Northwest Orient 747 airplanes take off. The flying behemoths were still new then and a remarkable sight to see.

In those days, the screws were not yet tightened to the breaking point and not every inch of space needed to produce a profit. The airport had an observation deck for visitors to watch the planes come and go. To get there, you needed to go through security.  The threat of hijacking in 1975 consisted of radicals hoping to force an airliner to take them to Cuba; or in one spectacular case, a thief parachuting into infamy with a few hundred thousand in cash. Security at the airport consisted of just walking through a metal detector. Since Dad and I weren’t flying, we didn’t have bags; so there was nothing to x-ray.  There were no lines of anxious travelers at the security checkpoint, there was no presumption that my 40-year-old dad and 12-year-old me were terrorists planning to rain death and destruction across the Midwest in the blasphemous use of God’s name. Certainly, no one tried to grope either of us to check for weapons or bombs sewn into our underwear.  If they had, I have a feeling my dad might have had a few words to say about it.

The man buried in this plot in a Rhinebeck, New York, cemetery is a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  I’m not sure he fought for independence in order for his ancestors to be groped in an airport.

The man buried in this plot in a Rhinebeck, New York, cemetery is a veteran of the Revolutionary War. I’m not sure he fought for independence in order for his ancestors to be groped in an airport.

In 1975, the metal detectors and x-ray machines were new. Only a few years before, people simply bought a ticket and boarded their flights with no real security in between.

My, how things have changed in 35 years. The observation deck at the Minneapolis airport is long gone.  Airport security is an ordeal that seems to become more dehumanizing and embarrassing each day.  Today websites such as and are springing up in protest of what is seen as an unnecessary invasion of privacy and in the new security procedures that require either indiscreet scanning or a very personal pat down by a complete stranger.

One morning in Cambridge, Maryland, I awoke to the sound of air raid sirens. By that point, I had spent enough time in town to know that we weren’t really under attack, it just sounded like it.  Despite being a fairly large town, the fire department in Cambridge was all volunteer. Earsplitting sirens alerted the volunteers that it was time to go to work; that someone somewhere was in distress and needed their help. The daily ruckus (or, in my case, the unscheduled wake-up call) was oddly comforting; with the knowledge that there were people standing by to help their community. The work of firefighters and first responders isn’t concealed by electronic communication, the entire town knows they are being called to serve. There is something highly appropriate about that in my mind.

The problem with the ever increasing, ever-more-intrusive security measures at airports today is that government is seen as the enemy — primarily because they are viewing us as the enemy. Yet for all of its faults, our government works well.  With a few notable and newsworthy exceptions from the Tampa Bay area, attempting to bribe a government official in America usually results only in a court date and the possibility of jail time.  In comparison to some countries I’ve visited, our government is essentially honest; and it is for that reason we are the envy of much of the world. If you need help and you see a person in uniform, whether they are a law enforcement officer, a fire fighter or an emergency medical technician; it is a safe bet and a valid assumption that they not only want to help you but are truly motivated deep down in their hearts to help you. Virtually ten times out of ten, you can count on that in this country.

Perhaps that is what is most disturbing about the ramp-up in the airline security procedures. The public has accepted dramatically tightened procedures since September 11,2001; but now a tipping point is being reached. People are beginning to view the latest procedures as an affront to personal liberty.  The public doesn’t seem to believe that the grainy, full-body-scan images will necessarily disappear into the ether after they leave the machine, and regardless, many people aren’t happy with a stranger seeing body parts that only spouses or significant others are typically allowed to see. Parents are rightly disturbed about the thought of strangers groping their children.  

This is not the America I grew up with.  At the same time, no one wants to see innocent passengers murdered as airliners explode in the sky.  But the fact remains that the public, by and large, is not the enemy.  The enemy consists of a relatively small number of lunatics.  So where do you draw the line between safety and liberty?

If indeed the public is beginning to see government officials as the enemy, nothing good can come from that.  We need our government and, more so, we need to be able to have an underlying faith in our government.  A quote by Ben Franklin is frequently bandied about today in response to how the nation has changed in the past nine years:  

They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Dr. Franklin had no concept of jetliners being flown into buildings when he said that.  And as a nation, I believe the public can agree that measures need to be taken to ward off those who wish us harm and have no human reservations about acting on those wishes. Perhaps more fitting words came from Dr. Franklin during a speech at the Constitutional Convention on June 28, 1787:  

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, — if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.

Indifference, meaningless bickering, and political grandstanding for personal gain have become the corruption of our time. That does not have to continue and we can stop it, if we so choose.  To allow it to continue is to disrespect and ignore those who put others above themselves.  It ignores the first responders in Cambridge, Sun City Center and Ruskin.  It ignores the sheriff’s deputy that comes to help you as others run away.  It ignores the teachers and other public servants who are dedicated to the public good, often at personal expense.  It ignores the troops serving this nation, willing to give their last full measure of devotion to each of us.  These people exist in far greater numbers than those who underhandedly encourage despotism.  

This nation is ours in times both good and bad. For it to work, there cannot be all take and no give.  Giving is a necessary element that is increasingly ignored today.  We are Americans and ours is a country of the people, by the people, and for the people.  It’s time we start acting like it.  The government is not the enemy, the government is supposed to be us, after all. We’ve met the enemy within us when we work against, rather than for, each other and greater things. We can change that starting today.  Renew your faith, demand something better and then get involved to make it happen.  It has been done in the past, it can be done today. Perhaps someday fathers will once again be able to take their sons or daughters to the airport to watch airplanes come and go without fear — fear of being viewed as a criminal or fear of witnessing a flying marvel explode in the sky.  It is possible.  In America, all things are possible.