The Episcopalian’s guide to airport security

Civility and common sense have been sacrificed for the illusion of security says Bill Bonner.

Bill is away until 17 April. So in his absence, we'll bring you some of his most insightful, caustic and witty observations from the last 14 years. The piece we have for you today was first published on 3 June 2002.

Early yesterday morning, after his flight was cancelled, your editor had the illusion that comes so readily to him of profundity.

"Coat", the security guard had said to him a few minutes earlier.

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"Pardon me?"

"Take off your coat", came the explanation from the factotum.

"What's the magic word?"

Common civility has given way to security needs, it seems, along with common sense and common convenience.

You have no particular reason to be interested in my travel adventures, dear reader, but in today's letter I will try to think of one. And if not, well, the Daily Reckoning is, after all, free.

It was 6AM For the second time in less than 12 hours, the passengers on Air France flight 028 had answered the same dopey questions:

"What do you mean, has my bag been in my custody - it's been in your custody. I didn't even have a toothbrush", answered a grumpy passenger with bulging forearms, after a night in the airport.

Now we were getting another round of unsolicited close inspections. Many travellers were not happy. But few complained. After all, at least they were still alive. Their flight, scheduled for the night before, had been cancelled after the pilot dropped dead of a heart attack.

"Take your shoes off", the guard continued.

"I guess you have a lot of trouble with people trying to hijack 747s with penny loafers", I commented.

But the guard was as insensitive to sarcasm as he was to courtesy.

A search of the computer databases at NSA or CIA or FBI would turn up few Episcopalian businessmen on the lists of suspected terrorists. Nor has anyone who voted for Jimmy Carter ever been accused of terrorism. (He may be accused of imbecility, a charge that needs no further proof, but that is another matter.) Still, in the interests of security you can't be too careful.

"Smile", I tell Jules, "and the world smiles back at you. Common courtesy, like common law, common sense, common decency, and traditional architecture and value investments, have a kind of magic to them. Pay attention to them and good things happen. Ignore them, and you end up with monstrosities."

People gripe about what morons these security guards are. But at least they get paid for their part in the national charade. The rest of us are the real idiots unpaid extras, standing in line under the pretence that every girl scout who boards a plane menaces the republic.

Your editor was witness to an amazing scene on a previous flight. In addition to the scrutiny given to everyone, airport security now includes deeper checks in which a few passengers are selected at random. If you are chosen, the guards put on rubber gloves and rifle through your underwear and papers.

In the Saint Louis airport, the fickle finger of fate pointed at you guessed it, a group of girl scouts. The odds that the girls on their way to a jamboree would pull out plastic knives and force their way into the pilot's cabin were, shall we say, remote. The plane would be struck by a meteor first! Still, the security guards worked their way through the girls' panties and mosquito repellent with the seriousness of an orang utan defusing a bomb. Even more astounding other passengers neither laughed nor scoffed.

Often, we noted later, in our reflective mood, common sense finds few buyers, while absurdity is over- subscribed. For there on the table in front of me in the waiting lounge was a copy of Sunday's Washington Post. A headline tells us that the Bush administration has just reversed more than 200 years of military policy . and thousands of years' worth of accumulated experience.

"US Will Strike First at Enemies", said the headline, describing the president's new line. "... the United States can no longer deter attacks from other nations by threatening massive retaliation, but instead must strike looming enemies first", explains the Post's report.

How will the US know who is an enemy and who is not? That was not explained. Generally, a man waits until he is attacked. Then, he knows he has an enemy and has to defend himself. Striking first is considered bad manners. Plus, it seems to lead where good people would rather not go. A man who throws the first punch is sure to get himself into trouble sooner or later swinging at enemies real and imagined, until he finally meets his match.

"It is a dangerous situation", commented a friend in Washington. "I mean, the US is the world's only superpower. Not having any competition makes people arrogant and lazy."

Success is self-correcting, we noted above. The greater the success, the bigger the correction that follows it.

Napoleon, you may recall, decided to attack Russia because it posed a security risk to his continental empire. Along the Seine, the vapours of arrogance and complacency had gone to the little Corsican's head. But his campaign against Russia slapped him in the face; it was a total disaster.

Later in the 19th century, Napoleon's nephew declared war on Prussia for much the same reason: national security. There was no time to wait, he argued. He feared the growing power of a unified Germany and decided to strike first, before the Germans could organise themselves and do real damage. The French army was not exactly prepared for action, but even after Waterloo, the Seine still reeked with the lingering odours of a bull market in French power. Like American investors today, the French believed "we will always manage somehow". A few months later, Parisians still managed - just barely; they were eating rats as the city was besieged by von Moltke's army.

"With hindsight," writes Paul B Hatley, "historians realise that Napoleon III's decision to go to war with Prussia ranks among the great military blunders in history".

The French learned from this experience. They've attacked nobody since. The god of war, they noticed, turns his back on those who strike first.

But the intoxicating stench of mindless pride drifted across the Rhine, where it took up a long residence. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to take the initiative in 1914 sending his armies into action against Belgium and France. By 1919 there no longer was a Kaiser.

Then, in the late 30s, Adolf Hitler went on the attack, his nostrils flared with maniacal self-assurance. He struck first to the west, and then to the east. In both directions, he enjoyed great initial success followed by terrible catastrophes. By 1945, Hitler was no more.

Of course, we do not presume to know whether the Bush administration's attacks will be more successful. But there is so much we don't know. We don't know if the people we meet are good people or bad, so we smile and say please and thank you, anyway. We don't know if stocks are going up or down so we buy only those which represent real value for our money. We don't know if striking at presumed enemies will make the world a better place or a worse one. But in Dulles airport on Sunday morning, we thought we smelled a strange and unsettling aroma wafting in from the Potomac.

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