Fear and Flying, Then and Now

by Bretigne Shaffer

Previously by Bretigne Shaffer: The Revolution Is Over – Long Live theRevolution!

In 1988, I fled college without having graduated, saved a little bit of money and got on an airplane for Taiwan. Martial law had just been lifted and back then, to enter on a tourist visa, you had to show a return-trip ticket. So that’s what I bought, even though I had no intention of returning to the US after my three-month-one-time-renewable stint was up. My plan was to sell my ticket to someone else and use the money to buy a ticket to wherever I was going next. So I put an ad in a local English-language paper and a young American guy responded to it. He paid me half the money up front, with a promise to pay the balance after I went to the airport with him and checked in – since the ticket was of course still in my name. 

On the day of his flight, the American guy and I took the bus out to Chiang Kai Shek International Airport. I took the ticket up to the airline counter, checked myself in, and then handed him the ticket and he handed me the rest of the money. We were both familiar with airport procedures back then: Once you had checked in, you would not ever have to show identification again. There were no long security lines, no invasive pat-downs, no full-body scanners. You walked through a metal detector and then on to your gate. He took the ticket, we said goodbye and I never heard from him again, so assume that he made it all the way to Los Angeles.

Imagine trying to do this in today's world. Imagine what would happen to the hapless souls who even attempted to pull off this kind of mutually beneficial exchange that harmed no-one else. Very likely, they would both find themselves accused of plotting a massive terrorist attack and be thrown into a military prison, detained indefinitely, perhaps never to be released.

By today's reasoning, the airports should have been on full alert back then. 1988 had been one of the worst years in terms of international terrorist attacks since 1972. With 456 incidents, the year had the highest number of terrorist attacks since 1985, and was within a cluster of the worst five years to date at that time.

(Source: SystemicPeace.org, drawing on data provided by the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RDWTI))

In fact, the number of international terrorism incidents began to decline soon after that period – all without the aid of "heightened security" or the official harassment of airline passengers. It began to rise again beginning in 2001, and there is no reason to think that all of these heightened security measures have had any impact at all in preventing acts of terrorism since then. What they have done however, beyond the obvious violations of our right to privacy, to travel, and not to be molested by strangers wearing badges, is to help change our culture for the worse.

I remember when flying used to be fun. I remember the feeling of excitement as I headed to the airport, boarded my plane and lifted off for new adventures in unknown lands – or even known ones. For the past few years, I've just avoided flying entirely, but I recently took to the skies again, and can attest to the complete lack of fun and excitement there is to be found in being herded about like cattle and being barked at by TSA agents – many of whom, the signs in the security line proudly inform me, have previously served in the military.

None of this surprised me. What did surprise me though, was something that happened on the plane on one of these trips. I was traveling with my family – my husband and son a few rows back, my daughter and I sitting together. Across from us were two empty seats and after the seatbelt sign was turned off, a well-dressed gentleman from the row in front of us moved from his seat into one of the unoccupied ones. He was not an American, but I wasn't sure what part of the world he was from. He had earbuds in his ears and was listening to music. After a short while, he began singing along to the music. Loudly. In a foreign language. The lady in front of me looked over at him with a concerned frown. Fifteen years ago, I would have just dug into my purse for my earplugs and written him off as an irritating fellow passenger. But on this trip I kept my eye on him to make sure he wasn't going to set his shoes on fire. I uncapped my pen in case I needed to kill him with it.

After a while, and after seeing him engage in friendly banter with the flight attendants, I decided I wasn't going to have to kill him with my pen and I put the lid back on. Of course he was just an irritating fellow passenger. But for a moment there, I had been caught up in the frenzied fear that has come to define American culture. I was just as wary of the "crazy foreigner" sitting nearby as anyone else would be. But I shouldn't have been. I know better.

I know, for example, that I am more likely to be killed by my furniture than by a terrorist. Yet I don't sit at home eyeing my dressers and appliances warily, waiting for them to make their move. I understand that my chances of being killed by a terrorist are approximately one in 20 million, while my chances of being struck by lightning are one in 5,500,000. Yet I don't clamor for a War on Lightning to combat this deadly threat. And I am eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. I know all of this. So why was I swept up in the fear of terrorism on that flight?

I can think of lots of reasons: I am a mom and I had my little girl next to me and wasn't going to take any chances; I hadn't flown in a while, don't get out much, and had forgotten how just plain weird people could be; acts of terrorism actually do happen, and I wouldn't want to be unprepared in case this was that one in 20 million event. But here's what I think it really is: I live in a culture in which fear is both an important commodity and a critical tool of manipulation. Various interests – government and the media mostly – combine forces to peddle fear, to magnify it, and to tell us what to fear. Whether we agree with it or not, we hear that message and it remains implanted in our psyches.

We are told that a man has tried to blow up a plane by setting his shoe on fire, it's all over the news for weeks, everyone talks about it. Even those of us who don't watch television can't help hearing about it. And the next time we get on an airplane and see a person acting a little odd, we can't help thinking about that guy setting his shoes on fire. Even those of us who should know better can't help thinking about him. To some extent, most of us can't help buying into the fear.

What we can do though is to not let that fear do our thinking for us. We can decide not to buy into the conclusions the purveyors of fear would like us to accept, and not forget that they remain – as a simple statistical fact – the greater threat to our security than are any terrorists.

When I was waiting to board my United Airlines flight a few weeks ago, a staff member announced over the loudspeaker that "those requiring special assistance, those traveling with small children and those currently serving in our military" would be allowed to pre-board. I hope I wasn't the only one there to notice the irony in our having just passed through a massive, invasive and inept security apparatus ostensibly for the purpose of protecting us from terrorism – and then having the airline honor the very institution that has brought terrorism to our shores by its own acts of aggression overseas.

I don't like to think that I can be manipulated by the fear mongers. But the truth is, when someone plants an idea or an image in one's psyche, it is hard not to let that idea or image impact one's thinking or even how one sees the world. Fear is a tremendously powerful tool for controlling people. Those who would control other people have known this for centuries. But it is only powerful to the extent that it gets us to abdicate our own powers of reason. We can remain viscerally fearful of terrorism – even irrationally so – and yet not accept the reasoning put forth by the fear mongers, nor the "solutions" that are their true aim.

We can remind ourselves of the statistics. We can remind ourselves that those in power want us afraid so that they can strengthen their control over us. And we can also remember that this pervasive fear is not a natural way of being, that it is not how all cultures are, that it hasn't always been this way. We can remember that flying was once fun, that making it less fun has not made it any safer and that one day it can be fun again.