Michael Olesker, Columnist, Baltimore Sun; April 10, 2003
ON THE LAST morning of the Maryland legislative session, this bunch
of kids, dripping wet, giddy with laughter, ducked out of a leaden
morning rain and ran into the modern America: a line that stopped at a
security checkpoint in the State House basement and backed up all the
way to the door. Uniformed officers went through pocketbooks and school
bags. The kids were teen-agers. Some of them looked surprised to be
searched and some of them - well, some of them looked surprised at the
other kids' sense of surprise.
You could divide the reaction by accent. The kids who didn't expect
the search were exchange students from a school near Hamburg, Germany.
The kids accustomed to this routine American checkpoint were students
at Severna Park High in Anne Arundel County. So it goes.
In Baghdad yesterday, there were television pictures of Americans
pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein, while thousands of Iraqis in a
public square waved flags and cheered heartily. It wasn't exactly Paris
dusting off the champagne bottles in '45, but it was pretty good. The
war was beginning to be over.
Monday, in Annapolis,
in the State House basement, we had this German teacher explaining to
her kids that the search at the door was nothing to worry about. The
uniformed officers smiled pleasantly at the kids. After a moment, the
kids were smiling back, almost as if happy to be showing off what nice
stuff they were carrying.
"You don't have security measures like this in Germany?" their teacher was asked. She shook her head no.
"Why?" she asked.
"Why would we have?"
In America, we no longer ask such questions. Certain things we take for granted now.
There was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when the fear of increased
street crime was making everybody nuts and they started installing
electronic sensors in certain public buildings. In that era, we held
public meetings and consulted civil liberties attorneys and worried
where such intrusions into our privacy might ultimately take us. You
don't hear so much of that talk now.
And you look at these kids from Severna Park, and you realize
something: This is the only America they have ever known. The debate
ended before they took their first breaths. In their America, nobody
walks into a courthouse, or a police station, or a City Hall or a State
House, without going through a metal detector and showing strangers the
contents of any bags they're carrying.
It's a world where they put security cameras in department stores,
and electronic beepers at airports, and the electric sign suspended
over the Beltway gives you a telephone number to call if you think you
spot anything that might be connected to terrorism.
It's just the way we conduct our lives now, particularly in the
post-Sept. 11 world. In the glow of the victorious moment, we sigh with
relief and applaud the kids in uniform who brought us something that
looks like victory. And nobody thinks about the ways we've tightened
our lives at home, and learned to take a siege mentality for granted,
in order to protect ourselves.
We put aside the thing said by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Remember what Mubarak said? It was last week, when things weren't
looking quite so bright in Iraq. He blamed Saddam Hussein for provoking
war but said the American incursion might rouse "a hundred" future
Osama bin Ladens across the Arab world.
It's one reason so much of the world community had so many problems
with America going into Iraq almost alone. Nobody doubted the cruelty
of Saddam Hussein, or the overwhelming American military strength. It's
the nagging question about what follows.
Even as crowds in Baghdad cheer American troops, the White House warns of difficult days ahead.
What does difficult mean?
Does it mean putting electronic beepers at ballparks?
Uniformed troops inside public squares?
Electronic beepers on street corners?
There's an attorney general, John Ashcroft, who's already given the
FBI the go-ahead to infiltrate places of worship, and a presidential
spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who warned Americans to "watch what they
There was a time when such things would have provoked all manner of
Americans to cry, "This is a free country, isn't it?" Not after Sept.
11 it's not, at least not as free as it used to be.
The question is: How much more will we give up?
Yesterday's celebrating in Baghdad momentarily masks the national
anxiety, where security lines at the State House provoke surprise from
German kids, but the Americans take it for granted.
It's the modern way we duck our heads.
The question is: How long before we think we're safe enough to lift them again?
And what else will we give up before then?