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The changing view from above

Security can take different forms

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My girlfriend and I were supposed to fly out last Wednesday for a long weekend in upstate New York, where we'd attend the wedding of two friends. But when the world collapsed last Tuesday, and the magnitude of the carnage became evident, our trip -- and our friends' wedding -- suddenly seemed irrelevant, even inappropriate. Wouldn't celebrating something -- even a wedding -- so soon after this horror feel forced?

But as a wedding creeps closer, it becomes like an aircraft carrier -- propelled by its own momentum, hard to turn around. Word came in that while the bride's father was marooned in San Francisco, her mother and siblings had started the long drive from St. Louis. And the groom's brother, worried that the Seattle airport wouldn't open in time, pointed his car east on Wednesday and started a 2,665-mile drive.

It was settled, then. As Hartsfield opened for business, I re-booked our flights for Friday afternoon. But it was not without some trepidation that we boarded the AirTran flight that day. The terminal had been strangely quiet, the place crawling with no-nonsense security, and aboard the plane, the only words spoken were in hushed tones.

I found myself for once paying attention to the emergency evacuation instructions. Then I realized I was sizing up other passengers, assigning a risk quotient to each of them. Behind me was an ally, across from me a possible terrorist.

That thinking was absurd, I knew, so why was I doing it? I had worked as a reporter in Cairo for almost two-and-a-half years, had debated politics with Egyptian cab drivers, broken the fast with co-workers and friends during Ramadan -- had, essentially, convinced myself that I was an enlightened American. I knew that Islam was, more than anything, about peace, that to call Osama bin Laden a true Muslim is like calling a cockroach a bird, that the American media's great failing has been perpetuating the myth that violence in the Arab world means Arabs are violent.

So what was my problem? As the plane climbed skyward, I tilted my seat back and tried to come to terms with this ugly new self-awareness. I spent the next hour staring at my tray table. As we began our descent finally, the speaker crackled. The pilot told us we'd seen enough terrible sights for one week, that he'd gotten a special dispensation from the tower to make a bit of a detour. Toward Buffalo, we banked low above Niagara Falls. Through the windows, we could see a rainbow.

Saturday was one of those late summer days that somehow redeems upstate New York's Siberian, marathon winters. Seventy degrees. A few cottony clouds. The wedding was at a state park, overlooking a massive gorge. The bride was Jewish, the groom Buddhist, the music Irish. Both her parents had made it. The groom's exhausted brother pulled up an hour before the vows were exchanged. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, the guests traded stories of how they got there, of airport security, of missing luggage and, in some cases, missing acquaintances in the New York rubble. Like me, some had wondered how festive we could be so soon after so much tragedy.

But then the bride appeared. And in that moment, in the perfect light of a summer afternoon, we realized why we had come so far.

At the airport the next day, we checked our bags and ran the gantlet of security. A guard directed us to take a swig from our water bottles in front of her. On board, passengers chatted, made bad jokes to the flight attendants. Minutes after take-off, I was asleep.

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