Travel in a time of terror

Posted: Aug 25, 2006 12:01 AM

May I have your attention please. The national alert level is orange. Please report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement personnel . . . .

On a too-quiet Saturday afternoon at Little Rock's national airport, things seem normal. Abnormally normal.

It is shortly after the arrests in London, and the tie-up at Heathrow continues. Passengers are learning not to bring liquids and gels aboard.

Ditto, over-the-counter meds and lipsticks. It's the newest normal.

A knot of people forms just this side of the boarding gates. Some are waiting for arriving passengers. Others have come to see someone off. There are hugs and kisses all around. A few words of Spanish drift over the down-home, innately sane Southern conversations. A gray-haired lady passes by in a sari . . . . It's a picture of America, only a still life.

It could be the opening scene of a Hitchcock thriller starring Cary Grant and some cool, interchangeable blonde. Or maybe the beginning of "United 93." Everything seems extraordinarily ordinary. Nothing has changed, except that attention is being paid, which changes everything.

Photo I.D.? Boarding pass? Traveling on vacation or business? You won't need to show your I.D. past this point. Have a nice day.

No doubt it's just projection, but everyone seems to be more aware. The background sounds are more distinct. A vacuum moves across an already polished floor, a glass is set down on a plasticized table, passengers shuffle off their shoes as they go through the security checkpoint . . . .

No one gripes about it today.

No one is hurrying. Getting to the airport three hours ahead of takeoff may explain it. It frees up the day. We are all suddenly rich in time.

In the waiting area, someone is making the usual point: Why do they search little babies and old grandmothers instead of zeroing in on young, Muslim men with connections to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Yeah, why do they?

Because if random searches make no sense to us, they won't make sense to the terrorists, either. They won't be able to assume that only young Muslim men will be searched. If searches are random, they also risk detection if they try to smuggle weapons aboard using other types -- babies, grandmothers, or maybe cool, interchangeable blondes. A rumor in the British press says the killers had planned to use babies. It sounds too predictable to be true.

The latest plan to blow up American airliners is supposed to have begun unraveling with a tip from a Muslim neighbor. Stereotypes deceive. Thank you, Alert Citizen. Thank you, MI5.

The first leg of the flight is, best of all possible words and worlds, uneventful. The long corridors in the Cincinnati airport seem almost empty today. Like the World Trade Towers on a lazy weekend in the 1990s? Attention. The moving sidewalk is ending. Please attend to children. Watch your step . . . .

In the corner of a food court, a televised Christiane Amanpour is asking The Question in her plum accent: "Why do they hate us?" It's as if she'd accidentally picked up a script from 9-12-01.

The implications of the drearily familiar question are clear enough: We bring these things on ourselves by not understanding what drives these angry young men. Clearly we haven't been sufficiently interested in the psychology, religion, grievances, hobbies and general Weltanschauung of suicide bombers.

What was that Noel Coward song circa 1943? Don't let's be beastly to the Germans . . . . We must be kind/And with an open mind . . . . Why, oh why, do they hate us? As a passenger about to board an airliner, it's hard to work up an interest. The existential tends to take priority over the theoretical at such times. A more immediate question occurs: "How do we keep them from killing us?"

By random searches. By searching stereotypical suspects, too. By paying attention. By not letting the mind wander off into the kind of mental haze that a steady diet of televised punditry may induce. By not confusing Christiane Amanpour/Tom Friedman/Charlie Rose with anything that needs immediate attention.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm all for understanding terrorists -- but the way a pathologist would understand the growth and development of tumors, the better to excise them. The national security alert has been raised to orange. Do not bring liquids or gels past the security checkpoints or on aircraft. Please report any suspicious behavior to the nearest airport employee or law enforcement officer . . . . We set down at Logan in Boston without a hitch. Even a few minutes early. I get my Red Sox cap out of my bag. (When in Boston, do as the Bostonians do.) This may have been the smoothest flight I've ever taken. Outwardly.

Inwardly, a disembodied electronic voice keeps repeating: Attention. The moving sidewalk is ending. Please attend to children. Watch your step . . . .