The latest small erosion of the American way of life came recently through an unlikely channel: an email from the Colorado Symphony.
It explained that the Symphony, along with other venues in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, is implementing TSA-like entrance procedures, including wands and bag checks. The email recommended arriving an hour early to allow sufficient time for entry.
A common observation since 9/11 is that terrorists have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in disrupting the American way of life. Their success is manifested in how we’ve curtailed freedoms of movement and privacy that Americans of a certain age (I’m 62) have taken for granted. (I do realize that people of color have long experienced far fewer of those freedoms than have I.) As recently as 18 years ago, when my wife and I sent our oldest kid to college, we could walk with her to airport gates or meet her there coming home for Thanksgiving. Since then, we’ve become accustomed to the ignominies of the snaking security line, the suspicion of Nikes and Dr. Peppers as lethal devices.
We’ve seen security levels spread to schools, even churches, of course. Terrible and agonizing crimes, perpetrated by warped domestic terrorists with guns, have sadly provided justification. But sometimes I wonder if, after aspiring to give English teachers Navy Seal training, we’re ultimately headed to universal home schooling. When safety is paramount, it’s probably best to ensconce every child in a home basement bunker, wirelessly tied to teachers and classmates.
Certainly, too, large sporting events have long been shrouded in security. A few Sundays ago, I stood in line 30 minutes along with several thousand Rockies fans, waiting to get into Coors Field. I’d arrived early, though obviously not early enough, as I missed the top of the first inning. Perhaps that was merciful, as I didn’t see the Cardinals score six runs even before the foam could settle on a glass of Blue Moon.
The fact is that nearly every public event is now marked by security measures that add time — and lots of it — to most outings. I have to think of millions of collective hours of productivity lost to screening. More importantly and subtly, I think of diminished spontaneity in our lives, of daily experience subtly shaped by the vaguest of suspicions and fears. The recent news from Boettcher Concert Hall shows the steady encroachment of the security mindset.
Certainly, I’d prefer Mozart without C4, Sarin, or James Holmes in the seat next to me. But I suggest that the infinitesimal fraction of benefit provided by ushers who frisk finally is not worth the cost. I’m willing to absorb tiny risks for a life that’s not increasingly surveilled and scrutinized. My concern is not with the single instance. It’s the compounding effect of hundreds of them, many even trivial. We naturalize, like frogs in the ever-so-slowly boiling beaker, until one day we’re walking down Blake Street, and an official demands to see our papers, and we’re obliged to show them.
My point, to be plain, is that we really need a serious consideration of what qualities of life we’re willing to give up in order to be — or to perceive ourselves — more safe.
I know the responses to my concern: “What if something happened to your family member? If we can prevent even one tragedy, shouldn’t we? Evil walks in the world, and we must be vigilant. We should hardly begrudge a little inconvenience.”
As a husband and father and grandfather, I want my loved ones to be safe. Heck, as someone who enjoys life myself, I want to be safe, too. But not at every cost. I’m happy to hike the Chicago Lakes trail above Echo Lake where it hugs a few hundred foot drop off, an act inherently far less safe than buying a ticket to The Messiah.
Life is full of risks, and some of them provide its grace notes and cadenzas. Downright foolishness is one thing, and we ought to avoid it. But the presumption that every public gathering is so fraught with peril that we must show up early to stand in security lines is quite another. There’s something to be said for an American way of life that presumes a better civic life, and we ought not lose sight of it.
Doug Hesse is Executive Director of Writing at The University of Denver.