The fear doctrine

    Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern

    This past August, in the weeks after everybody had already left home and gone back to school and we trimester kids were left all home alone, I took a train down to Raleigh, North Carolina, to see a friend of mine who had kept her apartment and worked through the summer. I remember packing my bags with the practiced efficiency of a learned traveler. One change of clothes in my backpack, another in my suitcase, sweatshirt doubling as a pillow, razor in one ziplock baggie, spare blades (disassembled) in a separate baggie and measured amounts of shampoo, toothpaste and other liquid necessities in a third — all less than three ounces.

    I drove to the train station, overpaid for parking, walked over to the station agent and bent down, preparing to unlock the clasps on my suitcase for inspection, when he quickly gave me a once-over surveying glance and ushered me onto the train and moved on to check the next passenger’s ticket. I stood up a bit too quickly, a little dumbfounded, unintentionally blocking the doorway to the train car, the next passenger growing impatient waiting for me to move. The learned traveler had not been prepared for this.

    There was no inspection to speak of, no rules, no safety guidelines whatsoever in the train station. Everything moved smoothly, without suspicion or fear, and I was dumbfounded. I had not been prepared for this, I had not been expecting this. I picked up my suitcase and followed the next passenger into the car, found a rear-facing seat, settled in and cursed myself for not packing more than three ounces of toothpaste.

    We have become a nation built on fear, we have been so indoctrinated against fear and terror and suspicion that we expect it in our daily lives, try to prepare ourselves for it, pretend to know how to handle it, make it seem a little less scary and continue on with our lives as best we can. But the truth is that fear has become a daily presence in our lives. We are told to constantly monitor our surroundings, report unattended baggage to the nearest security personnel and that visual profiling is actually honky-dory a-okay, in some states (click here to move the 2011 MLB All-Star game out of Arizona). We grin and bear it, do our best to pretend that none of it affects us and laugh when our idiot kid forgets to take his phone out of his pocket, silently cursing the extra ten minutes that it will tack onto the “randomly selected” security screening. We make do. We become a culture of acquiescence.

    I’m a pretty well-traveled guy. I’ve been to places. Lots of ‘em. Every time, it’s the same — shoes off, belt off, laptop out, pockets empty, throw away the water bottle I forgot about in my backpack’s side pocket, struggle to hold pants up with spare hand as I walk through the metal detector, holding my boarding pass out in front of my face for the guard to verify, wiggling my bare toes on the cold, linoleum tile. A practiced routine, a choreographed dance, a well-oiled machine by now. Nine years of practice come September.

    That everything could run so smoothly in the train station left me dumbfounded, even a full month later, and I’m still trying to reason my way through it. I felt like something had to be wrong. Maybe the station agent was trying to breeze through check-in so he could get home early, sacrificing all of our safety. “Are you sure you don’t want to confiscate my water bottle? Really? I know I’ve got some toothpaste in my overnight that you’ll want to take a look at.”

    I had forgotten what this simplicity felt like — this safety, this security, this unassuming belief and trust in the universal human spirit, that to try to sneak something onto this train and endanger my fellow travelers would be unfathomable. It was like being ten years old again, breezing through the security line at the airport, the security guard smiling at me as he directs my mother toward our gate, my light-up Power Rangers sneakers snug on my feet.

    In the summer of 2008 my family took a vacation to Buenos Aires, my “graduation present” upon successfully completing high school, to revisit our roots and reconnect with the Camponovo family heritage. I met my cousins, went to the Boca Juniors soccer stadium, saw some tango, drank some wine and bought my prized souvenir — a four-inch Argentine paring knife we got at an authentic Argentine estancia. I wrapped the knife in one of my shirts for safe-keeping and packed it — absentmindedly, distractedly, in my carry-on.

    We showed up to the airport, the metal detector went off, the security guard pulled the knife out and politely, smilingly told me (in Spanish, to boot!) that I would need to repack this in my checked luggage, that this kind of thing “happened all the time.” I turned red, apologized, repacked and couldn’t help thinking that if I had pulled the same stunt on the American side of the border, I’d still be detained as a commie-loving Argentine expatriate terrorist.

    When was the last time the national threat advisory level was anything lower than yellow? If you’re having trouble answering, don’t feel bad — since its inception in 2002, the homeland security advisory level has never dipped lower than stage 3, yellow or “elevated.” All flights, domestic or international, kick it up a notch, resting at orange — “high” risk. The system has never dipped into green (“low”) or blue (“guarded”); they might as well not even exist. That we could ever conceivably be that safe again sounds ludicrous. They serve as reminders of what it used to be like, in the good old days, when our government didn’t need to tell us we had a “high” risk of having our afternoon flight hijacked. We had no need for such a system back then, in those worry-free turn-of-the-millennium days that feel like half-forgotten memories now.

    I had been worried about forgetting, but the incident at the train station gives me hope. As disorienting as it was, it was pretty much exactly how it used to be, and arguably exactly how it’s supposed to be. There was a sort of unspoken agreement between the passengers and the station-agent — he did his own thing, we all did our own thing, did our best to minimize each other’s headaches and before I knew it, nine hours later I was exiting the train in Raleigh. My friend met me at the platform, gave me a quick hug and asked “good trip?”

    For the first time in nearly ten years I didn’t need to hesitate before answering “not too bad.”


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