Monday, June 21, 2004


The loss of life we endure in order to protect our lives

Posted By on Mon, Jun 21, 2004 at 4:00 AM

LITTLE DEATHS This year, bowing to terrorist threats, our government will voluntarily execute 889 airline passengers. They will kill approximately the same number next year and every year after that. This fact has not been in the newspapers. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have brought it up in Washington. It is the hidden death toll of 9/11. No one has acknowledged this death toll, because it is purely mathematical. Nevertheless, in this summer travel season, such deaths should be taken seriously. This is how I figure it: There are expected to be 600 million passengers on U.S. airlines this year. Because of what happened on September 11, 2001, those passengers are now being asked to arrive at the airport for their flights at least one hour earlier than they used to. In addition, passengers must now stand in longer lines at ticket counters and at security check-ins. The average wait at a ticket counter for a U.S. airline is now about 22 minutes; the average wait at a security check-in, 14 minutes. (I thought it was longer, too, but that is the official number determined last year by the federal government.) That 36 minutes of waiting on lines is, by my unofficial estimate, about 20 minutes longer than it was before 9/11. Thus, each traveler on an American airline now gives the terrorists 1 hour and 20 minutes of his life each time he flies. But experience tells me that at smaller airports, passengers do not arrive two hours early, nor do they stand in lines quite so long. So for simplicity’s sake, let's estimate that, because of 9/11, each time a passenger flies on an American airline, he now spends an extra one hour of his life just waiting around. This means that each year, our government now requires passengers on U.S. airlines to give 600 million life-hours to the terrorists. The average life expectancy in the United States is approximately 77 years (less for men, more for women). At 365 days per year, 24 hours per day, plus 19 extra days for Leap Years, that adds up to 674,976 hours in the average American’s lifetime. Therefore, if we give 600 million life-hours annually to the terrorists because of increased security at airports, that is the equivalent of giving them 889 lives each year. 889 lives. That's the annual death toll our country has accepted in exchange for increased security at our airports. And that, of course, is just at the airports. It doesn’t count the lives we give the terrorists on our roads, our bridges, our trains, our subways, and at immigration checkpoints. It also doesn’t count the times the system shuts down because a child has left her fuzzy pink backpack unattended by a trash can at LaGuardia. In this sense, then, the terrorists are forcing us to kill American citizens by the hundreds each year. But of course, you say, these Americans aren't really dead. They can still come home to their spouses and children. They can still go to ballgames and read great novels. This "death toll" is just a mathematical sophistry. Well, yes and no. It depends. Are we Americans really alive when we wait sullenly in a security line, taking off our shoes, emptying our pockets, waiting, waiting, for the humiliation of being wanded? Are we really alive when we sit staring mindlessly into space or yelling at our restless children in the waiting area at our departure gate? Is the child really alive who spends those waiting hours poking at his GameBoy or listening bored to her portable CD player? How alive are we when we are "living" long minutes doing nothing--or at least nothing that we would otherwise wish to do? To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim: "Every day a little death, in the traffic, at the gate." But there is a solution. In the face of this loss of life, we Americans should do two things: 1) We should demand that our government keep this toll of "little" deaths in mind when they consider future security measures. No new measures should be passed that further erode our lives. 2) We should demand of ourselves that we do not waste our hours of waiting. We must do everything we can to live, as we stand at the ticket counter or shuffle our way toward the security gate. This summer, as you travel, live deep, even as you wait for your plane or idle in traffic. Talk to a fellow passenger. Ask him what he does, or ask her where she's going. Make a friend while you wait, even if it's only for a few minutes. If that friend is a member of your own family, all the better. Or, if you're not the talk-to-a-stranger type, read a book worth reading--one that will make the rest of your life a little more alive. Really listen to that CD--let the music work its way deep into you, so the soundtrack for the rest of your life is a little more profound and uplifting than it would otherwise have been. If you don't want to read or listen or talk, then just stand there and try to be extra alive. Put all your senses to work. Look at all the milling life around you; see what a work it is, its colors, its shapes, the dance of it. Listen to the voices; go ahead, eavesdrop on the glorious babble of conversation all around you. Taste the air, or chew a piece of gum you've never had before. Smell the salt of that kid's pretzel, and the odd scent of that traveler's cologne. Heck, touch the chrome of the stanchion that's keeping you in line and be shocked by how cool and smooth and, in its own way, how beautiful it is. This summer as you travel, disarm the terrorists. Snatch back your life. Make the wait itself worth waiting for.

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