Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heightened Security and Withheld Apologies

Hip hip hooray for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for whose intention to blow up a Northwest Airlines airliner bound for Detroit we’ll all pay a high price in low-grade torment for years to come. We thought it was bad before, having to take off our shoes, being snarled at, poked, prodded, and provoked by jackbooted Transportation Security Administration thugs before being allowed to head for our respective boarding areas? Now it’s going to be much worse.

Stupid terrorists. Heightened Security caused one of my most heated early arguments with Claire, on our first visit to New York City. She wanted to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I, hearing that, because of Heightened Security, we would have to wait hours in line to be patted down, wanted to go elsewhere. We got well shirty with each other, to employ the vernacular of her country. And this mere hours after I’d had to see her little green eyes mist over with disappointment because nobody was being allowed into the Statue of Liberty for fear that someone would try to blow it up.

My impression is that the worst people in any given community usually wind up doing its airport security. It’s an occupation that calls out to those whose fondest memories of childhood are of bullying smaller, weaker classmates on the playground at recess, an occupation for those unable to pass the tests to become…correctional officers, an occupation for those who watch news items about the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and feel only envy — for those who inflicted the mistreatment.

Or maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it isn’t actual former bullies in these jobs, but the vindictive formerly bullied.

In either case, the worst ones I’ve encountered anywhere, and my passport barely has room left for another stamp, are in Chicago. In 2007, before Claire and I flew back to London, the guy who was summoned to pat me down after I set off the metal detector (because my titanium right shoulder, substituted in 1995 for the one I was born with, always sets off the metal detector) seemed to have been advised that I’d raped his daughter on the way to O’Hare, and did his best to provoke me. All he got for his trouble was the most murderous glare I could muster, but even that gave him some small pleasure, as he was able to ask if I wanted to speak to his supervisor. When I said I might, he smirked triumphantly, and advised me that doing so would involve our missing our plane, as his supervisor took long dinner breaks.

Of course I deserved this treatment, having had severe arthritis in my shoulder.

About six months later, when we were going to fly down to Miami, we arrived at Chicago Midway early, so when Ms. Patricia Carswell, attending the metal detector, took enormous umbrage at my observation that she might think about appending “please” to her requests, and not snarling them, I had plenty of time to confer with her supervisor. I asked if he enjoyed being spoken to like a dog. To his credit — he was black and probably could have made something of my question that it certainly was not — he answered directly: no. I told him that we had that in common, and advised him of Ms. C’s fervent thuggishness. He gave me a form, which I dutifully filled out and mailed to the appropriate authorities. I wrote also to Mayor Daley Jr., pointing out that Ms. C was unlikely to leave visitors with terribly fond last impressions of the toddlin’ town over which he presided.

My guess is that, in The Current Climate, La Carswell, the sort of black person who seems to hold every white person personally responsible for the horrors of American racism, is herself a supervisor.

Let’s consider the above for a second. In describing Carswell as I just did, I’m not for a second forgetting that for much of America’s history, blacks could count on being treated with contempt or at best condescension by most whites. Maybe, then, I should shut up and accept my share of the responsibility for white America’s gigantic karmic debt?


I’ll acknowledge that my dad firmly believed black folks to have natural rhythm, and probably wouldn’t have been very comfortable with my sister marrying one (not because he denied their humanity, but because he’d have expected her to be letting herself in for a life of harassment). But while Carswell’s great-grandparents were being exploited and scorned by white Americans, my own were being treated little better by their gentile neighbors in Germany and Russia. Carswell’s people lived in terror of being lynched? Well, my Russian great-grandparents lived in terror of drunken Cossacks burning down their homes and raping their daughters.

I think American racism was and is a monumental tragedy, as I think homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny have been tragedies. I have apologized to gay friends for having acted insensitively around them in my early adulthood. But I’m sorry. I don’t think I owe the Patricia Carswells of the world a syllable of contrition.

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