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The Peace Dividend

In one way or another most of us are unhappy about changes in our airports. The result of this unhappiness differs from person to person, but overall, the result is the potential loss of one of our country's great assets – the Peace Dividend of Travel.

There is no dispute that air travel has turned from a commonplace aspect of our lives that we all take for granted into an onerous and singularly unpleasant experience. The flight itself is not the problem, it is the experience of getting on the plane that is so bad. How has that happened?

Many people, like myself, have always enjoyed airports. There has always been that excited, I-am-going-on-a-trip feeling. Being around others who are anticipating the adventure of travel or the reuniting of loved ones at the end of the flight made for a wonderful atmosphere to be in. In recent years, the new restaurants, shops and services in the airport added to the interest and enjoyment of waiting for your flight. How often my ride to the airport and I made a fun experience of my send-off by having a meal or browsing in shops. No longer was the airport merely a way-station, it was a place to be in its own right.

All of that is a distant memory. First came the closing of the terminals to extraneous non-passengers. No more leisurely meals and shared shopping trips. No more pleasant good-bys in the lounges. Hello to the hasty drop-off at the curb under the strict eye of the parking police. All that extra time you need to arrive before your flight cannot be spent in a friend's company because they are closed from accompanying you past the security check point. All those insufferable hours in lines or, if you are lucky enough to make it past the security in a timely manner, warming the chairs in the waiting areas must be spent in some other way. Just bring a good book – a very long good book.

Everyone has horror stories about the airport security. Maybe it is a coincidence but since the Feds took over, they seem to be getting worse and not better. Grandmothers being frisked, the modesty of young girls violated, belts, shoes, coats, shirts and other clothing removed in public, innocent people arrested because they grimace at the wrong person, delays, searches and missed flights. I once was subjected to having my bare ankles fondled by a guard before being allowed on a plane. I guess looking at them was not enough. To this day I wonder how he thought I had imbedded some weapon under the skin and how I planned to have such a weapon removed for use.

The surly and obstreperous agents with their officious, intolerant bullying behavior create a general atmosphere of oppression and fear. One small thing to annoy these new masters of the airport will ruin your trip, have you arrested, thrown out of the airport or have you marked for life. There is no room for error, no room for explanation and no room for understanding and common sense. The attitude seems to be to treat the travelers as criminals until proved otherwise, which never seems to be proven to their satisfaction.

Now you will not even be able to lock your own suitcase to prevent petty theft. We are assured that not one of the new 50,000 federal employees that will paw through your luggage behind closed doors will take anything. Right! Even if that were credible, what about that unlocked luggage when it shows up in an airport not under the jurisdiction of our scrupulously honest security luggage searchers. Who is responsible then?

Certainly the small luggage locks we have used until now are not thief-proof but they do help keep honest people honest. They remove from an otherwise normal person the temptation of quickly unzipping that bag and having a look-see at what is worth taking. I have had my baggage robbed three times – twice when there was no lock and once when the lock was removed by the ticket agent. Otherwise my locked luggage has been left alone, even in very poor countries with a reputation for theft and dishonesty.

Now it seems that travel also entails the very real chance of showing up at your destination without some of your packed items. That suit you had ready for your business meeting or your handmade Italian shoes or simply your favorite dress, belt, tie or cosmetics – all have disappeared into the great open market that our luggage rooms have turned into.

The experience in airports has gone from a fun shopping mall and the first step on an exciting journey to the waiting room of a prison that oozes a police state mentality. Are you going to Hawaii for a suntan or jail? To add insult to injury, we are expected to pay for all of this whether we like it or not.

Although all agree at the very least that there are certain problems and inconveniences at the airports these days, many simply excuse it all as necessary to "fight terrorism" and "make air travel safe." Do you feel safer? This mental slight of hand extends to excuse the ever-increasing complaints of abuse by claiming that these are unfortunate events but still only anomalies. I never have understood how that makes them any more acceptable.

For the rest of us, airports have turned into an intolerable experience of the police state, where individual rights are non-existent. Many of us know full well that all of this expense, effort, time and disruption has nothing to do with airport security and in fact does nothing to make air travel any safer or another terrorist act any less likely. The sheer waste of effort and money and the sacrifice of common human respect and dignity is all for naught. We are exchanging our inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for something of no value.

What is the result of this change in our airport experiences? It is self-evident that it is a drastic reduction in the amount of air travel taken by Americans. The official numbers don't really reflect the amount of aversion that is growing among many as their tolerance is exhausted for the increasingly encroaching restrictions and oppression. Jumping on a local air carrier for that weekend trip just won't be happening as it is more of an ordeal than pleasure to get there.

Those business trips will be replaced by other means of doing the deals. Driving places and simply not going are more likely to be the choice as time goes on. Yes, some will get used to the new regulations but an increasing number of others will choose to opt out rather than be such a "willing" participant in the unnecessary, oppressive violation of their constitutional rights and their dignity.

We are already seeing the obvious results of these kinds of personal decisions. United Airlines has declared bankruptcy, other airlines are going out of business and others are losing unprecedented amounts of money. All of this, of course, affects the entire economy which affects each and every one of us – whether we fly or not. The economic consequences of these changes are well known. What should disturb us all is that this reduction in travel has an even more dire consequence.

Travel and social intercourse is the best way to build bridges of friendship and peace. Isolation feeds fear, xenophobia and hate. A country that closes it borders to travelers and goods is likely to foment and then fester hatred and anger in others. History is replete with examples of this.

It is well known that free trade and business associations across borders promote peace. In the 1700s, philosopher economist, Frederic Bastiat, said that, “If goods dont cross borders, then armies will." Been to North Korea or Iraq lately? Thomas Friedman states that no two countries that each had McDonalds had subsequently been at war with each other. Businesses often start with personal contacts and experiences and certainly are maintained by good relationships. Cross border business promotes peace, and personal travel is instrumental to that end.

The benefits of travel for all concerned have been known for years. In Victorian England, no young gentleman's education was complete without The Grand Tour, up to a yearlong excursion through Western and Eastern Europe. This was considered indispensable for his development, understanding and advancement in the world of government or business. Americans have had their own version of it in the past decades as many young people donned a backpack and went to Europe with a train pass and youth hostel card in hand.

During my own five-month trip to Europe at the age of 17, I remember thinking of the oft-quoted quip, "Travel now before every place looks alike." Little could I have known that a few decades later that would have to be changed to "Travel now before you can't."

Most of us who have traveled to other countries have learned tolerance, understanding and an appreciation of people different from ourselves. Through travel we learn that people are people everywhere and that most share basic values of peace, family, prosperity and wanting to be left alone to live their own lives in their own way. We learn that the government and media rendering of events are not necessarily true.

Visiting the actual places, seeing the situation and talking to the people involved often gives a very different view of events. In a word, it is much harder to vilify a group or country when there are lots of people traveling there. Further, people from other counties traveling here can defuse the hate mongering their own governments and media do to us.

The millions of Americans who travel internationally inadvertently serve as ad hoc Ambassadors of Peace simply by voluntarily following their own choices for travel, social relationships and business and making friends in other countries. They speak for America much better than the government, the media or the State Department. The Peace Dividend of Travel is a priceless asset and indispensable to the maintenance of friendly relations with other countries and the maintenance of public pressure on government to avoid hostilities.

With getting through an airport becoming so disagreeable and expensive in time and emotion and carrying with it the risk of arrest, imprisonment or a criminal record, people just won't travel. We will loose our Peace Dividend. At a time when cordial relations between people are more important than ever, travel should be encouraged in every way possible and not strangled in red tape, handcuffs, threats and regulations.

After WWII, Winston Churchill noted that an Iron Curtain had fallen dividing Europe and we all realize the horrible consequence of that. It seems that we are allowing a Plexiglas Curtain to fall between the airport parking lot and the runways. It looks clear and penetrable, but just try it. It is proving to be just as impassible as any other wall. Lets pull it down before this insidious barrier contributes even more divisiveness in the world.

January 3, 2003

Linda Johnston, MD, DHt (send her mail), a graduate of the University of Washington School of Medicine and certified in Homeopathy by the American Board of Homeotherapeutics, is in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of Everyday Miracles: Homeopathy in Action.