I want to revise and extend my remarks, as they say, from last week’s column on airport security. The reaction was great, but I have two reasons to amend. The first is that I didn’t really get to the heart of what is for me most offensive about airport security, and the second is that that thing, the most offensive part, connects to a larger, and I think more painful, fact of our culture.
Here is that larger fact: America has become creepy for women who think of themselves as ladies. It has in fact become assaultive.
I start with a dictionary definition, from American Heritage, not that anyone needs it because everyone knows what a lady is. It’s a kind of natural knowledge. According to American Heritage, a lady is a well-mannered and considerate woman with high standards of proper behavior. You know one, the dictionary suggests, by how she’s treated: “a woman, especially when spoken of or to in a polite way.” Under usage, American Heritage says, “lady is normally used as a parallel to gentleman to emphasize norms expected in polite society or situations.”
I would add that a lady need not be stuffy, scolding, stiff. A lady brings regard for others into the room with her; that regard is part of the dignity she carries and seeks to spread. A lady is a woman who projects the stature of life.
These definitions are incomplete but serviceable—I invite better ones—but keep them in mind as I try to draw a fuller picture of what it was like to be taken aside at an airport last week for what is currently known as further screening and was generally understood 50 years ago to be second-degree sexual assault.
I was directed, shoeless, into the little pen with the black plastic swinging door. A stranger approached, a tall woman with burnt-orange hair. She looked in her 40s. She was muscular, her biceps straining against a tight Transportation Security Administration T-shirt. She carried her wand like a billy club. She began her instructions: Face your baggage. Feet in the footmarks. Arms out. Fully out. Legs apart. Apart. I’m patting you down.
It was like a 1950s women’s prison movie. I got to be the girl from the streets who made a big mistake; she was the guard doing intake. “Name’s Veronica, but they call me Ron. Want a smoke?” Beeps and bops, her pointer and middle fingers patting for explosives under the back of my brassiere; the wand on and over my body, more beeps, more pats. The she walked wordlessly away. I looked around, slowly put down my arms, rearranged my body. For a moment I thought I might plaintively call out, “No kiss goodbye? No, ‘I’ll call’?” But they might not have been amused. And actually I wasn’t either.
I experienced the search not only as an invasion of privacy, which it was, but as a denial or lowering of that delicate thing, dignity. The dignity of a woman, of a lady, of a person with a right not to be manhandled or to be, or to feel, molested.
Is this quaint, this claiming of such a right? Is it impossibly old-fashioned? I think it’s just basic. There aren’t many middle-aged women who fly who haven’t experienced something very much like what I’ve described. I’ve noticed recently that people who fly have taken to looking away when they pass someone being patted down. They do this now at LaGuardia, in line for the shuttle to Washington, where they used to stare. Now they turn away in embarrassment.
They’re right to be embarrassed. It is to their credit that they are.
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An aside with a point: I almost always talk to the screeners and usually wind up joking with them. They often tell me wonderful things. The most moving was the security woman at LaGuardia who answered my question, “What have you learned about people since taking this job that you didn’t know before?” She did an impromptu soliloquy on how Everyone Travels With the Same Things. She meant socks, toothbrush, deodorant, but as she spoke, as she elaborated, we both came to understood that she was saying something larger about. . .what’s inside us, and what it is to be human, and on a journey. One screener, this past Monday, again at LaGuardia, told me that no, she had never ever found a terrorist or a terror related item in her searches. Two have told me women take the searches worse than men, and become angrier.
But then they would, for they are not only discomforted and delayed, as the men. There is also the edge of violation.
Are the women who do the searches wicked, cruel? No, they’re trying to make a living and go with the flow of modernity. They’re doing what they’ve been taught. They’ve been led to approach things in a certain way, first by our society and then by their bosses. They’re doing what they’ve been trained to do by modern government security experts who don’t have to bother themselves with thoughts like, Is this sort of a bad thing to do to a person who is a lady? By, that is, slobs with clipboards who have also been raised in the current culture.
* * *
I spoke this week at a Catholic college. I have been speaking a lot, for me anyway, which means I have been without that primary protector of American optimism and good cheer, which is staying home. Americans take refuge in their homes. It’s how they protect themselves from their culture. It helps us maintain our optimism.
At the Catholic college, a great one, we were to speak of faith and politics. This, to me, is a very big and complicated subject, and a worthy one. But quickly—I mean within 15 seconds—the talk was only of matters related to sexuality. Soon a person on the panel was yelling, “Raise your hands if you think masturbation is a sin!,” and the moderator was asking if African men should use condoms, yes or no. At one point I put my head in my hands. I thought, Have we gone crazy? There are thousands of people in the audience, from children to aged nuns, and this is how we talk, this is the imagery we use, this is our only subject matter?
But of course it is. It is our society’s subject matter.
I was the only woman on the panel, which is no doubt part of why I experienced it as so odd, but in truth the symposium wasn’t odd, not in terms of being out of line with the culture. It was odd only because it was utterly in line with it.
Was the symposium the worst thing that happened to me this year? Oh no. It wasn’t even the worst thing that has happened to me this week. But I did experience it as to some degree violative of my dignity as a person. An adult. A woman. A lady.
And I have been experiencing a lot of things in this way for a while now.
I experience it when I see blaring television ads for birth-control devices, feminine-hygiene products, erectile-dysfunction medicines. I experience it when I’m almost strip-searched at airports. I experience it when I listen to popular music, if that’s what we call it. I experience it when political figures are asked the most intimate questions about their families and pressed for personal views on sexual questions that someone somewhere decided have to be Topic A on the national agenda in America right now.
Let me tell you what I say, in my mind, after things like this—the symposium, the commercials, and so forth. I think, We are embarrassing the angels.
Imagine for a moment that angels exist, that they are pure spirits of virtue and light, that they care about us and for us and are among us, unseen, in the airport security line, in the room where we watch TV, at the symposium of great minds. “Raise your hands if you think masturbation should be illegal!” “I’m Bob Dole for Viagra.” “Put your feet in the foot marks, lady.” We are embarrassing the angels.
* * *
Do I think this way, in these terms, because I am exceptionally virtuous? Oh no. I’m below average in virtue, and even I know it’s all gotten low and rough and disturbed.
Lent began yesterday, and I mean to give up a great deal, as you would too if you were me. One of the things I mean to give up is the habit of thinking it and not saying it. A lady has some rights, and this happens to be one I can assert.
“You are embarrassing the angels.” This is what I intend to say for the next 40 days whenever I see someone who is hurting the culture, hurting human dignity, denying the stature of a human being. I mean to say it with belief, with an eye to instruction, but also pointedly, uncompromisingly. As a lady would. All invited to join in.