Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002/ 13 Adar, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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A security that suffocates us all -- IT'S an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the events of September 11, which outraged everyone, have nevertheless been an unprecedented boon to federal security freaks and ambitious bureaucrats.

They've never had it so good. Grateful bureaucrats ought to take down the portraits of the president, traditional in government offices, and put up glossy eight-by-tens of Osama bin Laden. Nobody else has done as much for them. (Can a Muslim be a patron saint for secular supplicants?)

The security guys have intimidated the president of the United States and his vice president, closed streets, erected hidden cameras to spy on us all, devastated the air travel industry, perhaps beyond recovery, and frightened women, children and horses everywhere. They've been allowed to push everyone around at will, all in the name of "security." The very word has become a mantra, spoken with the gravitas of a holy man repeating revealed scripture.

Even minor security functionaries, longing for the day when they grow up to be federal security agents, revel in their new authority to harass at will. Only this week some of them closed down New Orleans' international airport for five hours when a "suspicious substance" was found in a men's room.

The "suspicious substance" turned out to be containers of gumbo, that splendid nectar that you wouldn't think would be suspicious at all in Louisiana. Any cop in New Orleans should have identified gumbo in a lot less than five hours. A plate of red beans and rice would have shuttered the airport for days.

And only a few days ago, it was revealed that the airlines have been told by the new airport-security bureaucrats that they must close the special checkpoints established for frequent business travelers in the wake of September 11.

A spokesman for the new bureaucracy promised that security demands would be balanced with passenger convenience, but "common sense" would prevail and not everyone would be happy. This is the usual bureaucratic argle-bargle, which, translated, means "we'll tell you what's what, Buster, and if you don't like it, what are you going to do about it?"

It's not at all clear that the authority of the new airport-security bureaucracy goes beyond the actual screening of passengers and closely inspecting the dirty underwear - whether boxers or briefs - in their baggage, but no one can be surprised that the bureaucracy will assert such authority, betting that Congress will be too intimidated to do anything about it.

The revelation that the business-traveler lines will be closed follows the embarrassing public disclosure that Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, got caught jumping the line of mere peasants waiting to board a flight at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. It wasn't really Mr. Thompson's fault; he was told to jump the line by his Secret Service agents. But the embarrassment was all Mr. Thompson's.

The incident should be an object lesson for high-ranking government officials, who have burly and beefy bodyguards to push people out of their way, and thus have little understanding of how annoying the harassment has become. But it probably won't. High-ranking officials quickly come to suffer from something akin to the Stockholm syndrome, identifying with their bodyguards and taking their word that the royal treatment is necessary. Since some of them go to airports in motorcades, with sirens and outriders of various kinds of cops fore and aft and board government planes with fighter escorts, how would they know how the peasants live? (Doesn't everyone dine on cake?)

The president himself learned on September 11 the lengths the security apparatus will go to isolate the government from the people it governs. When George W. Bush started home from Florida on that awful morning the Secret Service ordered Air Force One first to an Air Force base in Louisiana, and then on to Omaha and the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, where they wanted to stuff the president into a hole in the ground where he would be "safe." He had to send a woman, Karen Hughes, out to reassure the nation from the White House, which was not very reassuring, least of all to George W. Bush. The president might still be languishing in that hole in the ground in Nebraska if he had not told the Secret Service to get out of the way so he could get back to the White House, where a president belongs. That's when the heroic presidency of George W. Bush was born.

The rest of us, of course, are on our own, even if we think our lives and convenience are just as valuable as the life and convenience of a government functionary. We should cheerfully accept reasonable changes in the wake of September 11; life has, in fact, changed. But Heaven help us all if we've actually become the nation of frightened Third World ninnies the security bureaucracy thinks it can make us be.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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