I No Longer Understand My Country

On October 30, Eliane Yvonne Marcele Aguillaume, 56, of Paris, was arrested in the Evansville, Indiana, Regional Airport on charges of disorderly conduct at an airport, public indecency and resisting law enforcement after she stripped to the waist in response to a security screener's attempt to search her with a wand. Mme. Aguillaume had visited southwest Indiana to attend her nephew's wedding, and was on her way home. According to the AP news report of this incident:

"During a routine security screening, authorities say Aguillaume kept reaching inside her sweater forcing guards to search her again."

"Aguillaume then became upset and allegedly removed her sweater, shirt and bra. Police said Aguillaume tried to pull away as an officer attempted to handcuff her. She later dropped to the ground and refused to get up."

The language used is telling. Note, first, that Mme. Aguillaume has ceased to merit politeness or respect: no Mme., she has simply become Aguillaume. Yes, let's forget that she is a 56 year old woman for surely that has nothing to do with anything.

Even more revealing, though, is the statement, "authorities say Aguillaume kept reaching inside her sweater forcing guards to search her again" – as if she had some strange, involuntary twitch or was, OMG, trying to hide something. If we imagine that Mme. Aguillaume has a shred of self-respect, it is easy to explain this mysterious twitch of hers: she was not comfortable with the fact that the screener was trying to rub or wave a wand over her breasts, so she kept reaching inside her sweater to cover and protect them. Understandably, this behavior would be inexplicable to the security screeners, overly conditioned from screening thousands who, being Americans, have no self-respect and stand there spread-eagled, dutifully submitting to the search and possibly thanking the screeners afterward for keeping them safe.

Becoming angry or exasperated, and being French, Mme. Aguillaume offered an alternative means of proving her airworthiness by disrobing, mere nudity being a natural and inoffensive condition, while submitting to probing wands is sick and demeaning. Unfortunately, the statutes and regulations do no permit this alternative proof. Given the nation's paramount concern for safety and security, one wonders why it isn’t a patriotic duty to strip at the terminal entrance and proceed to the airplane seat buck-naked. But no, our bureaucratic protectors insist that we continue to pretend and adhere to the illusion that there are standards of decency that must be respected, and keep our clothes on, all the while they are committing the most egregious violations of personal respect.

It is ever thus with the state. It commits an intolerable affront to a person's dignity and self-respect, and then makes it a criminal offense when the person actually cannot tolerate it. It is evident that Mme. Aguillaume did nothing wrong other than to take offense at indefensible behavior. The AP article does not describe any pandemonium that ensued upon Mme. Aguillaume's "disorderly conduct;" it is evident that the essence of her "crime" is simply that she did not behave as law enforcement expected or wanted her to behave, there being no real danger in it to anyone.

The law banning disorderly conduct at an airport was passed by the Indiana legislature after the September 11 attack. If convicted on that charge, Mme. Aguillaume could be sentenced to three years. The AP reports that Mme. Aguillaume "burst into tears . . . when a judge explained the possible penalties through an interpreter."

This is what it has come to in America: three years for a 56 year old woman stripping to the waist in protest of indefensible behavior. The arrest and laying of formal charges against this woman have outraged and disgusted me more than words can say. I no longer understand my country. I no longer know or understand its people.

Gripped and mastered by fear in the wake of September 11, the FAA institutes comprehensive, demeaning, and arbitrary searches and seizures. Gripped and mastered by fear in the wake of September 11 and an even greater desire to avoid possible financial liability for a failure to protect its passengers, the airlines give up all legal and financial responsibility for airport security to the federal government, and an entire new, unaccountable federal workforce is created for this purpose. Gripped and mastered by fear in the wake of September 11, the Indiana legislature creates a hitherto unknown crime, the essence of which is not complying with security screeners' standards of expected conduct in response to their illegal and demeaning searches and seizures: "disorderly conduct in an airport."

Did we actually believe that we, personally, were "at war with terror," we might contemplate the words of Japan's great swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, who said, "The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death" – for truly to be a warrior requires a certain degree of spiritual mastery over self and uncertain existence. Were we actually a Christian nation, we might contemplate the statement, made by the highest authority and therefore presumably true, that he who would save his life will lose it.

Where are the men in this country who actually understand that we all die, who have matured under consideration of their own mortality and are not mastered by it, who understand that what matters is how we live not how long, and who understand that to abandon and trample down standards of honorable and right conduct and the principles this nation was founded upon in a vain quest to insure that one will die peacefully in one's bed of old, old age is craven and despicable?

Where are the men in this country who perceive that the elaborate security measures at the nation's airports cannot accomplish more than to shift the burden of death to some other Americans at some other time and place, and who understand that this lifeboat philosophy – don't take me, take some other American – is both unchristian and conduct unbecoming a man?

Where are the men in this country who adhere to the standards of conduct of a gentleman? It's handcuffs for Mme. Aguillaume! Oh, yes, nothing personal, it's "routine" and the "procedure" – meaning that we have ceased to take personal responsibility for deciding moment to moment on the rectitude of our own behavior and simply do what others have laid down for us to do.

No, all standards of right conduct, honor, self-respect, dignity, and personal liberty reflected in the antiquated and unsafe notions embodied in the 4th Amendment are readily abandoned and replaced with reams of new statutes, regulations, and procedures, to be adhered to with minute, insect-like mindlessness and precision. Thus do we control our psychic terror and uncertainty – behavior in form and substance no different than the elaborate rituals and incantations developed by primitive man to propitiate angry and unseen gods, and having no greater ability to protect us or control reality.

If the security screeners are become mad with power, brooking no affront to their procedures and authority, however, it is not they who are at fault but we who permit them to behave this way. Where are the calls and e-mails to Evansville deputy prosecutor Dawnya Taylor expressing outrage that Mme. Aguillaume was arrested and is being prosecuted?

Where are the men and women who refuse to be subjected to this outrageous treatment? You want to search me with a wand and rummage through my personal effects? I guess I'm not flying. You want me to take off my shoes? You want my nail clipper? I guess I'm not flying. You want to pat down my wife or daughter? I guess we're not flying. Let the airplanes cease flying for want of passengers!

No! We will not pretend that what you are doing is noble, valiant, or good but assure you that it is depraved and worthy of utmost contempt. You want safety above all? If that is your highest value, here, we will give it to you, and ground the nation's airplanes, and when you are lying on your deathbed may you thank God that you have lived a long, long time.

Not here, apparently. Here it's handcuffs and three years for Mme. Aguillaume. America was some other country, long ago.

November 1, 2002