A Security Mom's Take on Terrorism

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Eat your heart out, 50 Cent: Less than a month into 2006, the ever-elusive Osama bin Laden has released yet another red-hot recording—this one tentatively titled “Death to Infidels: Part 17”—vowing to rain down bloodshed and mayhem on Americans both overseas and at home. Some of bin Laden’s more captivating lyrics include the ominous warning that “operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are ready.”

Predictably, news of the tapes consumed the front pages of the major dailies and set the cable chat shows buzzing, as Americans once again were forced to confront the unhappy fact that the globe’s most infamous sociopath is, regrettably, still alive and kickin’ it somewhere in Southeast Asia. Or the Middle East. Or China. Or, hey, the guy may be wintering in Boca for all U.S. intelligence forces seem to know.

Anyway, my guess is that, for much of the nation, the appearance of new bin Laden tapes is cause for increased anxiety—an ugly little reminder that our war on terrorism has thus far failed to rub out the man that the White House once upon a time identified at its chief target. But for me, tapes like this come as something of a relief.

As a Washington resident who drops her two tots off at daycare a block from the White House every morning, I must admit to being perhaps unhealthily obsessed with homeland security. I take comfort in the police cars on the corners of downtown streets. I like seeing frail old ladies frisked at the airport. I want my luggage x-rayed, hand-searched, and torn apart by dogs if that’s what it takes to keep my plane from being blown out of the sky by some misguided holy warrior looking to spend eternity with a gaggle of doe-eyed virgins.

I am, however, all too aware that much of the country does not share my concerns. Polls indicate that only about a quarter of us remain significantly concerned about the possibility of a major attack on American soil. Around 40 percent say they’re “somewhat concerned,” while the rest are concerned either “not much” or “not at all.” And when it comes to personal investment in the issue, the numbers sink even lower, with less than 10 percent seriously concerned that they personally will fall victim to an attack, versus around a third of those with not a lick of concern.

Now, I understand that most people don’t live within spitting distance of President Bush’s living room. Still, I’m surprised more folks aren’t a little more anxious about the specter of terrorism considering that polls also show that most of us are only moderately confident in the government’s ability to prevent an attack, as well as its ability to handle the aftermath of such an attack. And a solid majority of us think that the government should absolutely be doing more to improve homeland safety—with or without Osama issuing inflammatory warnings from his home recording studio in... wherever.

It’s hardly surprising then that no one seemed especially perturbed when the now-defunct 9-11 Commission issued a “report card” on our Homeland Security that would have gotten your average fourth grader busted back to the third grade. All those “D”s and “F”s and hardly a flutter of interest from the public at large. Heavy sigh.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the Bush administration’s dogged insistence that we’re fighting them “over there” so we don’t have to fight them here at home. Certainly, my Republican family members like to remind me that, whatever I think of the Iraq war, there hasn’t been an attack on U.S. soil since we went marching into Tikrit.

On the micro level, I had an up-close look at the loosening of concerns in one of the places you’d think would be most paranoid about security: a commercial flight. Over the holidays, the FAA temporarily resurrected the post-911 rule forbidding passengers from leaving their seats during the final half hour of any flight headed into Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Inconveniently, the crew of my Reagan-bound flight failed to warn passengers of the approaching limit (as was commonly done), until we had passed it, leaving me not only in need of a bathroom break, but also holding a sealed bag of dirty diapers.

When the flight attendant came to collect the trash, I tried to pop the bag into her sack, only to have her recoil and inform me that “human fluids” could not go in the trash, because it was headed back to the galley. Diapers had to go in the lavatory garbage, she sniffed, knowing full well I wasn’t allowed out of my seat.

Now, I don’t know what exactly I expected the flight attendant to do about my plight. Return for the bag separately? Tell me to leave it in on the floor for the clean-up crew? Have me toss it to the family of five seated in the back row and ask them to tip it on into the restroom? What I most certainly did not expect was that, in the wake of our exchange, said attendant would become so anxious about what precisely I would do with my toxic cargo that I would be given permission to leave my seat and take the bag to the back myself.

Deep into the heart of the stay-seated zone, I was tapped on the shoulder and brightly invited to walk the length of the plane, unescorted, with my pack of poop. Which is exactly what I did, much to the wide-eyed horror of my fellow passengers, who clearly envisioned some burly air marshal tackling me in the aisle and diverting our flight to god know what airport for a six-hour FBI interrogation.

Of course nothing of the sort happened, and I suppose should appreciate my flight crew's customer-friendly attitude. But it disturbs me to think that, given a choice between adhering to federal security rules and contending with a dirty diaper, the diaper was judged the more pressing concern. Clearly we have come a long way since September 11. Perhaps a little too far.

So call me selfish, but I can’t help but be pleased when Osama’s spotlight-grabbing tirades, while hopefully mostly hot air, gives the rest of the country a smack on the fanny. I don’t expect the folks in Peoria to be as nervous as I am. But it doesn’t hurt for the rest of the county to occasionally be reminded that, a free Iraq notwithstanding, al Qaeda is still furiously plotting ways to bring the war back home to us.

Let’s just hope they don’t figure out that dirty diapers are the key to dodging those pesky homeland security rules.