Being in A Time of War

Let's separate true security from temporary make-work efforts.

by Carolyn Chase

he list of things we think but cannot say is longer than ever. The list of “worry thoughts” that occur to us and must be endured is also rising. Many Americans have never directly experienced how to “be” during a homefront war.

    A dear friend of mine in New York is clearly coping with a long list of new “worry-thoughts” that are occurring to her. What if? What can we do?

    She is actively exploring: how do we live in a world “where anything is now possible?” She tells me, “The cycle of violence isn't the answer, but violence will be required before we can get to peace.”

    On the day the United States began military strikes on Afghanistan, I was returning to San Diego from attending the Sierra Club's National Political Training. I can report that they now have significant traffic at 4:30am on “the beltway” - the massive freeway ring around our nation's capitol.

    I chose to return via Reagan National airport, which had just reopened and where you get a birds-eye view of the Pentagon on take off. The terrorists' damage was on the opposite side to the flight path and looked tiny against the scale of that massive building.

    The traveling public was calm and stoic, and I overheard many interesting conversations in and around Washington D.C.

    “Freedom isn't free”

    “If my time has come, so be it. I would be a part of the passengers who would not allow terrorists to take over a plane and jeopardize thousands of lives on the ground.”

    “If the men on a flight couldn't overcome a hijacker with scissors, then they would deserve their fate.”

    The presence of four Army soldiers with machine guns at one airport security gate - where I declined to be frisked - did not make me feel more “secure.” Watching airline counter workers demand that passengers check their nail files and tweezers struck me as an irrational, fear-based overreaction.

    It is still true that, as FDR observed, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Overreacting out of fear is wasteful and costly, if understandable. I observed little probable cause and lots of probable fear - and much inconsistency between facilities. I regret to report that there has been a shift to a “guilty until proven innocent” regime in the public realm.

    I didn't count the number of times I was incompetently searched on entering public buildings. While public institutions are searching everyone's bags, presumably in the name of fairness, they end up being unfair to everyone and not really providing more security. I had a wrapped package in my backpack that was never found nor questioned; it could have contained anything. How much do cursory searches really matter? Some forms of “deterrence” simply escalate costs and the consequences.

    As I was leaving Baltimore/Washington to transfer to Reagan, they were just announcing that they were going to “pat down” every passenger who wanted to board. I avoided this fate, since they were not doing this at Reagan. I saw the security agents informing parents that they must have photo IDs for their children in the near future to be able to board. One taxi driver told me that they were telling barber shops they could not have scissors in the airport.

    Mayor Rudy Giuliani calls it an “excess of caution,” since obviously some of the fear is rational.

    What other responses will be called for? Compassion, conservation and efficiency. Doing more for others has already begun. Doing more with less will follow, as the minimum $70 billion tax increase sinks in - and we asked to give more. Infrastructure priorities must be rethought.

    They were doing some smart things in some places. At San Diego, Dallas and Baltimore, the usual incessant drumbeat of CNN-TV that has crept into airports over the last years was quieted. I was only reminded of its absence when it dominated the scene at Reagan/National. Loud and continuously strident, there was no avoiding it at the gate and there was no question that it made for a more stressful environment in that airport. One of the great reliefs of traveling at any time can be the distance from the news of the day.

    Time will tell how much of this is a temporary war-time emergency response, during a time of great emotion, and how much are worthwhile long term measures. Obviously, we will see increasing use of hi-tech surveillance. But especially those things that make us less free, must also genuinely make us more safe.

    But I've also noticed something else that seems more cultural: more people saying hello to me on the street and in other locations. It's as if they are “checking me out,” to judge if they can connect with another citizen by looking at me, eye-to-eye. It's as if they are seeking to somehow find the strangers in our midst who might be detected by sensing their their aloofness - their disconnect, their fanaticism.

    A Naval Reserve officer sent me the following, “War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

    - John Stuart Mill.

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at