Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763

Deborah Mathis

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Consumer Reports

The bad guys have underestimated our adaptability -- Now that security personnel at the nation's airports have been federalized, you have to wonder what took us so long.

The difference between the federal corps and the privately hired workers is significant. The new, crisp-shirted, polite, efficient and alert vigilantes are not quite as snappy as military personnel, but close, and a lot more personable. They almost make you not mind that they're rummaging through your unmentionables in front of a planeload of strangers.

I realize that, as a frequent airline traveler, I may be jinxing myself by going on record with this sincere observation. With my luck, a rude slob awaits at the next gate. But so far, so good, although it is a pity that we've been reduced to assessing how well, quickly and courteously the hassles are handled.

For the average person, there's no getting around the inconvenience and intrusiveness of public travel these days. I watched an old man nearly collapse from the stress of an encounter with a security guard at the Orlando airport the other day. Seems his son had run in for a second to fetch a passenger, leaving the elderly fellow in the car. The son returned to find his father wheezing and the parking guy churning out a citation. Not even this pitiable circumstance made a difference. A double-digit fine was imposed. No unattended vehicles, no lingering allowed.

The scene inside is no more hospitable. Long lines slink up at the curbside check-in, the indoor counter and at the security checkpoints. Grown men slip around in their stocking feet while a guard checks their shoes for contraband. Old women stand akimbo, their tired arms outstretched as a wand outlines their form. Sleeping babies are uprooted from their strollers for a scan of their swaddling clothes. Chemical-detecting swabs swim through loads of tee shirts and curling irons, travel irons, jewelry cases, medicine bags, books and sweaters. Colorful wrapping paper is ripped open so that the brand new compact disc player is no longer a surprise.

This is precisely the mess that, in the aftermath of 9/11, we were warned Americans would not abide. Getting to the airport two or more hours before a flight? No way, they said. Endless lines, sometimes two or three abreast? Forget it. Submitting one's carefully and privately prepared luggage to open inspection? In your dreams.

Yet there is very little manifest objection to this new routine, this new normal. For sure, there is some grumbling, but for the most part, we behave like good little soldiers, falling in, following orders, partly because we know there's no use protesting; partly because we appreciate the intensity of these new protections; and partly because we know that if we don't obey, our bowed heads and shackled hands could end up on the evening news and our names on one of John Ashcroft's lists.

In short, we have found a way to make this work. It is not great, it ain't like it used to be and it shouldn't have to be this way, but we have made it doable.

It's undeniable that the terrorists were victorious in disrupting the American Way. Our liberties have taken a big hit, from the big ones - freedom of movement and freedom of association are no longer unfettered - down to the little ones like the freedom to keep your coat on through the checkout line if you find the terminal drafty; or the freedom to keep the motor running so that Grandma will not have to walk so far from baggage claim.

Those may be permanent changes. We may never get back to the way we were.

But, the bad guys may have underestimated our adaptability, which is a most valuable asset in our resolve to keep this republic afloat. What they did with those planes and to those passengers in September 2001 led to major changes in the way we manage public transportation.

But, we're still managing it. America is still going places.

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© 2002, TMS