Jonah Goldberg

When it comes to understatements, "the Germans have made some mistakes" is in a class by itself. But one thing they're great at is words. They've got the best words, particularly for feelings of angst or woe. Most everyone knows schadenfreude, the feeling of joy one has at another's misfortune. A more useful term in the melancholy group would be weltschmerz: the sadness one feels when contemplating how far the real world is from an ideal world.

Other German words are rich in specificity but impoverished in pith. For example, there's Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung, which is a meeting held to hear suggestions for improvement, or Schwarzwälderkirschtortenlieferantenhut, which, according to my less-than-scholarly Internet spelunking, is the hat worn by a black forest cake delivery person.

Anyway, the reason I've gotten us both into this Teutonic-etymological mess is that I was searching around for one of my favorite German words: Fingerspitzengefühl. It seemed like the perfect password for entry into the impenetrable debate over the Transportation Security Administration and its new policy of getting into the anatomical nitty-gritty at airports.

I was out of the country, with very limited access to news, when this controversy erupted, and I had a hard time getting a feel for it. Hence my search for Fingerspitzengefühl, which I'm overdue in defining. Fingerspitzengefühl, according to Wikipedia, is a military leader's ability to grasp "an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield." But Wikipedia adds that it doesn't have to be a martial term. Fingerspitzengefühl "literally means 'finger tip feeling,' and is synonymous with the English expression of 'keeping one's finger on the pulse.'"

Both connotations seem apt.

The war on terror, as we all know, is an unconventional thing, at least on the home front. Instead of missiles or marauding armies, our enemies attack with exploding shoes or other weapons hidden where the sun does not shine. As a result, security officials need -- or at least think they need -- new kinds of information, and lots of it.

In short, Uncle Sam craves a Fingerspitzengefühl of the battlefield in your shoes, shirts and, yes, pants. If you don't agree to a body scan, then TSA officials will have to get their Fingerspitzengefühl with their actual fingers.

One traveler presented with this new reality protested, "Don't touch my junk," and a media sensation ensued.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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