Last August, I took my husband to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda for a chemotherapy treatment. He had warned me of the serious security measures that were in place. He wasn't exaggerating. We each had to show ID, then get out of the car and walk into a building that was equipped with the kind of scanners set up at airports these days. While I ran myself and my purse through the scanners, my car was being checked out for bombs. Having passed inspection, I was given a one-day photo ID and we were sent on to the hospital.
It was a beautiful, warm day, and I decided to explore the area, and walk to downtown Bethesda for lunch. I walked out the other side of the compound (for it truly was a compound), past a manned guard booth, and out the gate. As I so often do, I misjudged distance, and what I thought would be a one-half hour walk turned into over an hour, each way, in the Maryland heat.
So, nearly three hours after I left, I walked through the gate looking like someone who had crossed the desert and was hoping the end was truly in sight and not a mirage. The same gentleman was at the guard post, and he indeed stopped me. Apparently, not too many people walked out the gate, and he remembered me. And yet my one-day pass proved inadequate ID, he also made me show him my driver's license. And then told me I needed to go around to the front of the complex and go through the full security process again....
The look I must have given him seemed to convince him a) that I wasn't much of a threat, and b) had I to walk around to the front I might have ended up being admitted as a patient, bad public relations for NIH if nothing else.
As I pondered this strange experience, and later talked to my husband about it, we wondered if there was some top-secret highly dangerous research going on that would require these extreme measures.
In Pay Any Price, by James Risen, he talks about what he calls the "war on normalcy" that has been going on since 9/11. It is of course a tremendous boondoggle, costing us billions of dollars, in the name of national security. What all these security corporations have sold to our fear-mongering politicians is the ability to continue to win elections by instilling terror in the populace. And what we have gotten in return is a nation that trembles in its boots, although we have had far fewer terrorist attacks than we had in the 60's and 70's on our soil.
What have we lost? Our airports, once the place for reunions of families and friends, are now war zones. There was once a time when people could walk to the gate to see their loved ones off. Hell, there was once a time when you could bring a bottle of your own water onto a plane. I am told that if you are over 75, you are exempt from taking your shoes off as you go through screening, but that's only until the feared jihadis put a 76-year-old on board.
On December 26, at a wonderful, small local movie theater, I was astounded to learn that they were checking bags. Granted, the woman who was charged with this ridiculous task conducted the most embarrassed and cursory search I've ever undergone. But still.... And then I realized that this was the big, bad opening of The Interview, a totally goofy, mediocre comedy that had recently struck fear into the hearts of Americans, worried that Kim Jong Un's warriors would be storming our theaters.
What else have we lost? In Charleston, when I first moved here, I was enthralled by the First Night festivities. Locals and tourists walking the streets downtown, with what seemed like hundreds of free and inexpensive performances in churches and theaters. My daughter played the fiddle with Na Fidleiri, and we wandered in and out of other performances throughout the night. I thought it just couldn't get any better than this.
Then, after 9/11, First Night disappeared, pretty much without a peep. I have looked it up, yearningly, from time to time, and what it has come down to is a few hours of performances -- "family entertainment" and specifically "non-alcoholic" -- on Marion Square. And lots of advertisements for restaurants. A tragic loss, in the name of protecting us from terrorism.
Seems we have terrorized ourselves these past fourteen years. In the name of security, we have taken away community, and warmth, and freedom to walk the streets, the airports, the theaters of our country.
And, need I add, the real terror really lies in the hypocritical freedom to carry weapons, weapons not to hunt, but to wage war on others in our communities, with no checks or controls. So it hasn't been Al Qaeda that has terrorized our schools and theaters, it has been unbalanced individuals with access to assault weapons. And those fear-mongerers whose purpose is to maintain their power of office refuse to legislate gun control. But are happy to keep us from going about our lives as though life were normal. Our insecurity is what keeps our politicians secure.