Editor’s Notebook: Airport security
The lights of Portland, Maine, as viewed from seat 20F last Friday night. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
“It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown / That’s the way that the world goes ’round.” – John Prine
I was in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with other States Newsroom editors from around the country, as well as the national team and the staff of the D.C. bureau. We get together at least once a year, always in the nation’s capital, and I never fail to return home newly inspired and optimistic about the future of journalism.
This year was no different – except the “return home” part didn’t go as planned.
While it’s always fun to tell harrowing tales of travel gone wrong, it can also be kind of like talking about that crazy dream you had. Just because you can tell a story in great detail doesn’t mean you should. And the bottom line is there’s nothing unique about my little adventure, so I’ll keep it brief.
I was supposed to fly from Washington to Manchester Friday but a series of flight cancellations meant that the closest I could get to home that night was Portland, Maine. After an abbreviated stay in a hotel near the Portland International Jetport, I was informed by two very nice people at Hertz and Enterprise that an impromptu car rental at an airport is not a thing that happens anymore. In the end, I called home for a ride.
All in all, I think I handled the series of unfortunate events better than Steve Martin’s Neal Page did in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but I could have used some Del Griffith shenanigans to help pass the time. Instead, I did a lot of observing.
If you want insight into the undercurrent of tension in American society, try hanging out in a major airport when everything falls apart. A lot of people went from courteous and understanding to aggressively rude within milliseconds of receiving a piece of news about their particular situation they didn’t want to hear, like another delay, gate change, or flight cancellation. Pity the airline employees working the customer information counters amid a string of cancellations, and God help the poor soul tasked with announcing that all the local hotels are booked.
Lately I’ve become more sensitive to the way fear and the perceived absence of security influence behavior – especially my own. The overall vibe last week at Reagan National Airport was truly something to behold.
Our minds need security to function properly – that seems clear – and apparently physical security is not enough. We also require the illusion of security that we are always crafting and recrafting for ourselves – the security that comes from believing we are respected by our peers, loved by our friends and family, and valued by our work and social groups as the unique individual we know we are. We have each spent a lifetime constructing the “I” and any perceived threat to that sense of security mimics a threat to physical security. To be treated as just another stranded traveler trying to get home can feel like obliteration. Even when we are physically secure in the shelter of an airport – with access to food and water and protection from the elements – any departure from the planned, expected, or desired has a way of making us feel decidedly insecure. And so the thought spiral begins.
If you spend enough time investigating for yourself why thought does what it does, you’ll see that fear isn’t something that happens to us but something we are. There’s no suppressing it, there’s no analyzing our way out of it, and there’s no running away. All day long it reveals itself in new ways (What if my flight is canceled again? What if I have to sleep in the airport?) that are heaped on top of the countless other fears we carry always (What if the things I worked so hard for are taken from me? What if I lose someone I love?).
All of that stacked fear – the full weight of our eternal burden – not only influences how and what we think but also degrades our policy debates and public forums. The dangling carrot of promised security shapes our politics, practices, and promises – and through our inherent selfishness seduces us into cruelties big and small.
In my better moments at Reagan National Airport last week, I saw my stress for what it was: a longing for security that was not only outside of my control but almost entirely illusory. And in those moments when I was fully alert – aware of the movement of fear – I wondered what it would be like to stay that way.
Can you imagine that kind of freedom, that kind of independence?
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