We were in the Big City. And I was scared witless.
We weren't precisely in the Big City, but smack in the middle of that scariest of all city institutions, the airport. You cannot get farther from Hardyville than today's American airport.
Bob-the-Nerd was there to pick up his mother, visiting from Darkest California. I came along in the time-honored writer's tradition of work avoidance. But once there, I didn't want to go inside.
"That's terra *&^%$ing terrifying in there," I told Bob. "You go. I'll wait in the truck."
Bob is the only Hardyvillian who can run the TSA Gestapo gauntlet if he must. He has genuine, official government ID. Well, maybe not precisely genuine. But official, certified, and enough to make the federales think they're big, tough, and all-powerful. I figured going in there should be his job.
But Bob wasn't having it. "Look," he insisted. "We're staying outside the security checkpoints. No reason you can't come in."
I still balked. He played his trump card: "If you don't keep me company I'll talk about how to install Linux on the Ipod the entire way home."
It's a long drive back to Hardyville. I went inside.
So there we were -- in a place that made Theriesenstadt look homey by comparison. That made Cold War propaganda films look like reality TV.
Hundreds of people shuffled along like Stalinist peasants queuing up for loaves of sawdusty bread. But these weren't peasants. These were America's formerly best and brightest. They inched along with their heads down, faces blank, their manner servile and subdued. A few couples, families, or small groups talked with each other to pass the endless waits. But smiles seemed forced, conversations stilted. Like the conversations of East Berliners, always knowing "the authorities" are listening.
Heavily armed guards scanned the crowd of disarmed
peasants passengers. The cowed crowd (which the Department of Homeland (Achtung!) Security insists are its "customers") -- shuffled toward portals to be serviced (I use the word advisedly) by TSA agents.
I hardly need describe it. You know the drill. But you can't imagine how alien and unreal it looks to somebody just arrived from the free city of Hardyville.
My cussedly independent Hardyville mind was boggled. I knew that for "privilege" of having shoes removed and crotches groped the
underclass travelers had already had to show their government ID cards to "friendly" airline clerks -- clerks trained to report anyone "suspicious" enough to pay cash for a ticket. Or buy a one-way ticket. Or look nervous. Or have a one-year-old infant whose name resembles one on the government's secret no-fly list.
"And just about every one of 'em," I muttered to Bob, "Gave their government inventory number somewhere along the process to earn the 'privilege' of being treated like
Jews in Germany terrorist suspects."
"Yep," Bob nodded, watching them as if they were exotic animals miserably confined in a zoo. "And you know what's even more bizarre? If you could go right up to that line and talk to those people most would tell you they're 'free.' The freest people anywhere on earth."
Sigh. They would, too.
"And all this submitting and complying helps keep them free," Bob added. "So they'd tell you. Security. Always one of the best temptations to tyranny." He shrugged. Nothing to do about it.
"Come get me if you see a thick little Japanese lady coming out of the concourse," he said. She'll look as mad as a rabid bat. Meanwhile, I gotta take some pictures of this back to Hardyville."
He pulled his cellphone out of a pocket and edged away, snapping photos with it. A guard glared and moved in his direction, at which point Bob gesticulated wildly and began babbling at the guard in rapid "Japanese" -- a language I personally know Bob doesn't speak. The guard shook his head. Deciding that a photo-crazy Japanese tourist made an unlikely Arab terrorist, he went back to his position. Bob moved off, still snapping.
Left alone, a low-level nausea quivered in my guts. I felt chilled, as if I were coming down with a fever. Tempations to tyranny. What an apt phrase.
Everywhere around us were people who'd call themselves free while accepting any violation of their liberties. Worse. All over the country are people who say they love freedom but who demand constant gratification of their very own personal temptations to tyranny.
"Let's keep America free by surrounding it with razor wire, surveillance cameras and soldiers."
"My speech rights are inviolable, but the government should seize your guns."
"My vices are fine, but yours should be banned."
"Subsidies for me, and may Government Almighty smite my competitors."
"It's okay for me to take tax-funded handouts. After all, it's just my own money coming back." Sigh. And that woefully wishful thought even comes from libertarians.
I must have muttered something aloud, because at that moment Bob sidled back up and said, "Yeah. That's like saying that because some creep broke into your house and stole your TV you can break into somebody else's house and steal theirs. 'Getting my own back' is just something people tell themselves so they can look into a mirror without puking on their own shoes."
Exactly. And there before us shuffled the entirely predictable result of everybody wanting their special something from all-powerful government.
We watched. The
peons people inched forward as if dragging invisible chains. A young woman shot a pleading look toward her impotent husband as guards led her behind a screen for a more private groping. An old man gestured frantically, trying to explain that the metal detector wasn't finding a bomb but an artificial joint.
"I can't do this anymore, Bob."
"Go back to the truck then. I'll wait for Mom by myself. I was just kidding about talking about Linux all the way home."
"No, that's not what I mean. I'm getting used to watching this now. It's like something made up by Samuel Beckett. Absurdly entertaining. What I mean is that I can't write about freedom any more. Not about political freedom, anyway. There's no use in it."
I gestured toward the shuffling
"What? Pearls before swine?"
"No. They're not swine. Or sheep. Or cattle -- no matter how much the government may tag and treat them like herd animals. They're people. Who don't care. And that's worse."
"Some care," Bob objected. "Even right there in that line there are people Who know what's happening."
"But people who really care are also people who do. No diktat or poobah, no threat by any state security apparatus could stop people who have a deep inner drive for freedom." I sighed. "You're right, of course. But it's not enough. I'll bet not one in a thousand over there ever laughs right in Authority's face. Or ignores it.
"Without inner freedom, mere political freedom just gets trampled -- not so much under jackboots as under millions of shuffling feet. It's too late to save this mob from itself."
Bob shrugged again, then waved as he spotted a wide, tiny woman poking her head around shoulders at the back of the crowd emerging from the concourse.
"So what do you do next?" he asked. "Quit? Then aren't you just as bad as them?"
"I don't know what anybody else does, Bob. But Abbie Hoffman was right and the few people who actually give a damn are wasting an awful lot of rocks. When we get back to Hardyville, I'm heading up to the Hilltop Hermitage. And I'm going to Contemplate. Even if it might be as tricky as discovering the Meaning of Life or the Nature of God, I'm going to figure out what makes a person's inner self so truly free that the most monstrous force on earth can't make a shuffling slave of him."