How the National Security State Becomes Us

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

"The No-Fly Follies," a recent piece by Rebecca Gordon, triggered a little repressed memory of mine of a trip I took in 2003. Arriving at the airport, I turned my suitcase over to the ticket agent, only to be told that it had been singled out for special inspection. I was already running TomDispatch and I couldn't help wondering, somewhat nervously, if my activities had preceded me to the airport. I was directed to another spot in the terminal where I lifted the suitcase onto a table in front of a Transportation Security Administration agent. She promptly unzipped the bag, flipped it open, and front and center, face up atop my folded clothes, was a book that had "Unabomber" in big letters in its title. It felt as if a jolt of electricity had shot through my body and my eyes were bugging out of my head at my obvious stupidity. As if to confirm that feeling, the agent looked stunned, too. We were both silent for a too-long moment, contemplating the reckless passenger who had a book about the Unabomber conspicuously displayed in his bag. Then she said, "How is it?"

It was the last question I expected to hear and I stumbled far too quickly to respond with something like: "I don't know. I haven't read it yet. A newspaper asked me to review it." (All true, but in translation it clearly meant: "Hey, I know this looks terrible, but I'm a reputable book reviewer, not your basic terror-lovin' sorta guy.") Not much else was said, but believe me, my bag and backpack were inspected with a thoroughness that had to be seen to be believed. A second agent was even called in to lend a hand. In the end, the bag was cleared for departure and, chastened, I headed for the security line, already unfastening my belt.

And there's a little p.s. to this episode. Not so long after, I set out on another trip, this time carrying Tariq Ali's book, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, with me. As I was packing, I noticed that its cover featured George Bush's face superimposed on Osama bin Laden's. It was a striking image and in a split second I was slipping the jacket off the book to leave at home. If I got singled out again, I had no intention of letting an agent find a cloned bin Laden-Bush image among my possessions.

In this way, microscopic act by microscopic act, whoever we are, whatever we think we think, we can't help but absorb the limits, the directives, the intentions that our ascendant national security state wants to impose on us. In all sorts of devious ways, without serious thought, in acts that hardly register, we make their agendas, their surveillance, their searches our own; we turn their taste in reading and thinking and expressing themselves into ours. Someday, there's a great book to be written on all the hidden triumphs of that ever-more powerful shadow state that has embedded its version of the American way of life inside our own. In the meantime, check out Rebecca Gordon's account of how we create our own no-fly lists and become our own no-fliers in the unfriendly skies of twenty-first-century America.