On Monday morning I may have had a stark glimpse of the future. I didn't like it.
I was at Los Angeles International Airport to catch a flight back to Medford. I'd been listening earlier in my rental car to the latest NPR story about the human face of unemployment, good solid people who'd lost their jobs and weren't about to find new ones. After going through the normal drill, I was putting my shoes back on. I looked around as I finished tying the laces. That was the moment.
What I saw, in a space about the size of a basketball half-court, was about three dozen Transportation Security Administration officers, all in crisp sky-blue shirts and black ties, with very little to do. They were jockeying for the chance to pick up empty plastic bins off the end of the conveyor belt, one or two at a time, and carry them out front. They were talking quietly with one another, a couple of them wisecracking and laughing. They were picking tiny pieces of this or that off the floor and crossing the room to throw them away. They were waiting.
Now, it's true that the lines through security happened to be short and mellow. If it had been one of the many times that LAX is bursting with travelers frantic to get to their gates, the number of blue-shirts might not have registered with me. But it did, and, the possible future I saw, with NPR's jobless story not yet faded from memory, was the Total Security State.
There are plenty of countries that seem to have uniformed people, mostly young men, everywhere you look. Conventional soldiers, reservists, local militia, police, police cadets, security guards, neighborhood monitors (they were in every urban corner of Cuba when I visited), armed heavily or lightly or not at all, looking proud and usually crisp and clean in their white, green, blue, brown or camo uniforms, even in countries where almost nothing else is crisp or clean. This serves at least three purposes, with the blend different in different countries: 1) Public unrest is discouraged and sometimes suppressed; 2) young men, the explosive ingredient of most rebellions and revolutions, have something regimented to do, which nudges them towards identifying with rather than resenting authority; and 3) more people are working, drawing and spending paychecks that in turn get more people working.
Is that what's happening here? Well, No. 1 lines up with lots of stories we've heard since 9/11, from first-ever army deployments on domestic soil to new detention camps, supposedly to fight illegal immigration. You can pick your own level of the willies about all this. Mine rose considerably during the last administration. I'm never keen on fanning the flames of paranoia, a mindlessly easy task these days, but I will say this: As flaky as it might feel to suggest that the purpose of some airport security measures is to numb us to petty invasions of our personal space and privacy, that's easier to swallow than the notion that authorities genuinely believe that they're making us safer by getting millions of us barefoot every day.
How about No. 2? NPR just reported that that the Taliban have an easy time recruiting Afghan youth to fight not because they're popular, but because these local people have no other way to feed themselves and their families. Shocking — until you think hard about the throngs our army, navy and marines have pulled out of American inner cities to fight overseas, young men who often have no other legal way to put food on the table, and might raise bloody hell in the process of trying. Are we as different from other countries on this score as we like to think?
And No. 3? Well, our government's straight-up in the job creation business now, and shuttling stacks of plastic trays from the back to the front of the conveyors and watching me lace up my sneakers, are paying jobs. There are probably five dozen I'd rather support with my tax dollars, from weatherizing low-end homes to hand-thinning excessive fuels in northwest forests to caring for kids so that working mothers can catch a break. That shift might mean that people board planes without removing their shoes or tossing out tubes with more than four ounces of toothpaste or shampoo. Ready for the risk?
I'm no security expert. I don't know how big TSA should be (it spends nearly $7 billion and has 50,000 officers today). What I know is that people who've silently accepted more and more uniformed agents of the state in their midst during troubled times often end up wishing they hadn't. What do you think your Washington reps would say if you asked why they're confident that this is a smart, right-sized expenditure?
You could find out.
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.