America the Joke-Free Zone

I must fit the profile, because this is the third time in one day I've been selected for a search.

It was hard enough getting through the metal detector while gripping my driver's license and boarding pass between my teeth and carrying two books under my arm, a submarine sandwich, and The New York Times. Now I'm herded over to the special search line with the other terrorist suspects -- an eighty-year-old man and a woman struggling to get her six-month-old out of its Snugli for the diaper inspection.

I would like to point out that the 4:23 commuter flight to Cincinnati is unlikely to be a strategic Al Qaeda target. But this could be taken as a "joke," and I am well within the joke-free zone known as Security or, more generally, as America in 2002.

Now I am wanded, head to toe, by a wizened woman who wears her ID badge like a Purple Heart. She wants to know about the chemical composition of my brassiere, which I assure her contains nothing metallic. How long, I'm wondering, before the wearers of Miracle Bras are forced to remove their metal underwires and let them ride through the X-ray machine in the little basket that carries keys and loose coins? I have to take off my shoes, which, I notice with horror, are thickly crusted with a substance that may resemble gunpowder but is, in fact, dried lemonade from an unfortunate spill at Sbarro's. Then I have to undo the top snap of my jeans, exposing my navel to the sadly disinterested throngs.

At a table set up for this purpose, a Latex-gloved official rummages through my underwear with unconcealed distaste. I try to recall what potentially embarrassing items my suitcase may contain -- a pocket copy of the Koran, for example, my favorite Mahmoud Ahmed CD (he was Ethiopian, but the name's a problem), the flight plan for our tiny turbo-prop, a collection of rubber sex toys? Finally a fuzzy brush is produced to check for traces of explosives, although I can think of many innocent ways one might acquire a few explosive traces here and there. Like if you work at an explosives factory or for a demolitions firm. Or suppose you had gotten into one of the lawn border disputes that so plague our suburbs, and had been preparing some TNT to surprise the neighbors with. But the security team is more interested in my nail clipper -- the second one I've had confiscated in a week, at $1.29 a pop.

Whatever happened to racial profiling? is my thought, and, Where is white skin privilege when I need it? But I restrict myself to a thin grimace directed at my fellow searchees. "Well, I'm glad they're doing such a thorough job!" responds the woman, as she stuffs the screaming baby back into its Snugli. I'm not at all reassured by the searches -- for the simple reason that, if they're searching me, they're not searching someone else.

What would make me feel better about flying? For one thing, I'd like to turn the tables. Instead of being grilled about my lingerie, I would get to grill the CEO of the airline about the salaries of the mechanics, the amount budgeted for repairs, and whether he has begun selling off his shares of the company's stock. I have a few questions for the pilot, too: Is he going through a divorce or bankruptcy proceeding at the moment? Would he fly in this weather if his children were on board?

Sure, terrorism is a problem, but I have a plan for that, too. First, secure that cockpit door -- really secure it -- so the occasional deranged passenger can't kick his way in, forcing the pilots to look away from the controls while they attempt to ax him to death. Second, on the foreign policy front, how about dumping Sharon -- Ariel, that is? For decades I have held my tongue on all things Middle East-related, for fear of offending either side. But cozying up to the butcher of Sabra and Shatila, while pooh-poohing Arafat, can only be regarded as a provocation.

Yes, there's a great deal our President could do to upgrade airport security. He might, for example, stop calling other nations "evil." The word is a conversation-stopper, implying incomprehensible malice. Why not say "wrongheaded" or even "naughty," and leave open the possibility of reform? Maybe I'm sensitive on this point, but I tend to take it personally when a million Iranians gather in Teheran to shout "Death to America!" And while we're fussing about semantics, I beg the President to refrain from referring to the residents of Pakistan as "Pakis." Maybe you mean it as an affectionate nickname -- like calling corpo-terrorist Lay "Kenny Boy" -- but it doesn't play well in Peshawar.

Then, too, the President could advance the war on terrorism decisively by doing something to ease the global inequities that serve as a breeding ground for murderous resentment. I'm not saying that Barbara and Jenna have to join the Ruckus Society and start attending anti-globalization demos -- only that their dad should consider abolishing the Third World debt and abandoning so-called free trade. A high price to pay for airport security, you say? Not if you're a passenger standing by guiltily as your underwear is exposed to the assembled masses.

In a videotaped interview released in December, Osama bin Laden averred that terrorism would lead Americans into an "unbearable hell and a choking life." Darned if he hasn't succeeded; at least I'm choking as the security matron disassembles my submarine sandwich to search for switchblades hidden among the salami.

It would be so easy to adopt my anti-terrorism foreign policy, but I know the authorities are far more likely to introduce body cavity searches than rein in corporate capitalist world domination. That's where I personally will draw the line. When they start hiring gynecologists and proctologists to do airport security, I'm going to pass on Cincinnati.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitian Books, 2001).

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