Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Flights of Fancy at the Airport Baggage Claim

by Pat Brown

On the way home today, I was stuck in airport hell in Philadelphia which led to my purchase of a new book by Alan Alda called Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. Alda, after suffering a near fatal life threatening emergency while traveling in Chile, thinks back over his life and the meaning of it all, recapping speeches he gave to college students on their graduation day. He reviews the thoughts he shared with each group of students from decade to decade, the issues the young people faced as they went out into the world, and how they would make their mark on society and the future. Alda shared how he had studied existentialism and found it oddly comforting. He discerned that life is basically meaningless and that for life to have any meaning at all, one must create that meaning for oneself, take paint to the canvas of life and express oneself. I totally agree with him. Unfortunatelly, such a conclusion also has a down side. If one can and must express oneself in life, one can do so negatively as well as positively.

I read Alda's thoughts as I was waiting for my luggage to find its way to the baggage claim at the airport in Baltimore, Maryland. Looking up, I noticed a number of forlorn suitcases waiting patiently for someone to come for them. There were about twenty in all, big and small, strewn about, unattended. Over the loudspeaker came the familiar warning to notify airport authorities if there were any unattended items left about. I looked over at the unclaimed suitcases and I thought, well, yes, there are twenty of them. Being a criminal profiler, I often evaluate a situation from from a criminal's point of view and I found it rather ironic that when we arrive at the airport we watch carefully for suspicious people - at the ticket counter, in the security line, or shopping in the stores - and we become immediately concerned if they suddenly walk away from their luggage, yet when we go down a level to the baggage claim, we don't pay a bit of attention to anyone or what they do with their stuff. How easy it would be for someone to stroll into that area with a bag, casually add it to the twenty-suitcases-in-waiting, and walk away. The question then came to my mind, how could someone walk into such a place - see wives kissing their husbands goodbye, honeymooners holding hands excited about their vacations, little children toddling about, and mothers embracing their sons arriving safely from their tour of duty in Iraq - and then leave a bomb to blow all those innocent people to bits?

Since 9/11, I have been in four locations in the world that have been bombed six months to a year after I visited them. I don't mean I was just in the country or a city that was attacked; I mean I was physically present at the exact spot where the bombs exploded. I was in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt walking along the Red Sea boardwalk six months before bombs exploded there. I was in London before the tube attacks, I was in Hyderabad, India nine months before explosions rocked the very place I had visited, and, just recently, bomb blasts killed dozens in Delhi, India, striking a number of sites in the city including Connaught Place, a shopping area which I had visited the night before I left the country. My son, who was with me, went on to Jaipur where, three days later, seven bombs exploded in the downtown area. Luckily, my son was unhurt but too many others were not so fortunate.

These bombings hit home for me because I had been there, seen the beauty of those places, seen the faces of the people who worked in the shops, watched the comings and goings and the interactions of the locals and tourists. I had been a part of that landscape. 9/11 no doubt was similar for those in New York City and Washington DC. We ask how anyone could destroy these beautiful places and the people in them?

I sat at BWI airport and stared at those suitcases and thought about Alda's statement. The bomber is doing just what Alan Alda said we need to do to make life meaningful. We must create meaning. We must paint a picture or destroy a picture. We must do something.

The terrorist, the bomber, and the school shooter do what we all do, but they do it as the antihero. A child gets a kick out of building a tower of blocks but he may also get a kick out of smashing it. One can paint a picture or one can douse a canvas in kerosene and light it on fire. Either way, there is a result. If one cannot build or cannot think of a reason to build, then destroying what others build is expressing oneself and effecting change in the world. The school shooter who can't fit in, who sees no future, and feels he cannot "paint a picture" that won't be laughed at, can, on the other hand, shoot down ten classmates and know that the depth of horror over his actions will win him "best in show." The Delhi bombers who don't see themselves as future businessmen can visit Connaught Place after the blasts and feel the thrill of having "beaten their competition."

My luggage finally came toward me on the conveyor belt. I grabbed my two bags and walked out into the fresh air. I looked back at the crowd inside and hoped that I wouldn't read a headline about that location half a year from now. Unless we find a way for young people to believe they can make a positive impact in the world or at least their small part of it, we will continue to see a number of them become the kind of artists whose work we would prefer to never experience.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just quibble when you write: "How easy it would be for someone to stroll into that area with a bag, casually add it to the twenty-suitcases-in-waiting, and walk away."

Soon after 9/11, security analyst Bruce Schneier pointed out that by creating long, snaking lines at airport security where people enter (and now must take off their shoes, belts, etc. while big crowds wait behind them), the new rules created much easier targets of opportunity for actual suicide terrorists - to wit, the crowd waiting to be screened - that frequently includes as many people as they'd kill blowing up a plane, more on a busy travel day. To this day that's a completely unprotected avenue of attack at every airport in the United States.

That said, life is full of risks. We've focused on the risk of airport security understandably, but disproportionately, IMO, when there are other public safety threats more deserving of scarce resources.

The rest of this piece, though, was excellent, particularly the observation that school shooters and terrorists "do what we all do, but they do it as the antihero." It made me think of the lyrics to a brilliant Warren Zevon tune: "I'm going to go back to Paris one day and go to the Louvre Museum and get a good running start and hurl myself against the wall. I want to hurl myself against the wall, because I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all." ;)

Pat Brown said...

Hey Grits,

Thanks for adding that very interesting part about the security issue and the security line being such a good target. To quibble back, heh, I wasn't actually making commentary about which area was safest, just noting how people think....we tend to think about security on the way into the airport but not on the way out. But, I am glad you brought that up because each time one looks at security issues, you can see how looking at things one way leaves you often blindly unaware of the other way you should have looked at the issue. The other part of the equation we all tend to ignore, which is again part of your point above, is that you can't really protect everything. If you protect airports, bombers can strike bus stations; if you protect bus stations, the bombers can hit malls. We in the United States haven't experienced the type of attacks India is familiar with which happen in crowded public venues (outside of our school shooting problem which is our domestic terrorist choice of location). This is pretty much why I just go ahead and not overly worry about travel; you just can't figure out where the next attack is going to be and I don't want to get so paranoid I won't leave the house.

The pain thing is very true and often people would prefer physical pain to either emotional pain or emotional numbness.

SursumTX said...

It has long seemed to me that we would be safer as a nation if we spent more time and money creating opportunity for those who have none, both here and abroad, than we spend on the use of military force or on opportunistic exploitation of people and resources. I'm just sayin' . . .

Pat Brown said...

I wonder, Sursumtx, if you are not so right about that. I think, perhaps, so much money is funnelled into negativity we are making people angry and depressed.

Even thought a violent psychopath is a pretty nasty creature who cares nothing for others, he didnt become a psychopath in a vacuum. Our school systems and families and entertainment have become quite toxic, and must certainly contribute to the negativity. Likewise for corportation, governments, and policies that make for hostile reactions in many parts of the world.

Big order, eh?