On a recent trip to the airport, I'm embarrassed to say that a lifetime of good ethics and believing in treating others as I would want to be treated was chased out of me, instantly replaced by a childish fear and hatred of the unfamiliar. On the bright side, I began to make sense of something people have been saying all along.
The 9/11 commission told Americans that a "failure of imagination" was one of the most important mistakes. It's an idea that questions our ability to think creatively - the essence of being human. I began to ponder this as I was taking off my tennis shoes for airline security. It was hard not to believe that, at least momentarily, the terrorists had won. First I took off my coat and hat and placed them on the X-ray belt. Next went my small carry-on duffel, and then my backpack. I took out my laptop and put it in a plastic bin.
Then I removed my cellphone and wallet and placed them in yet another container, along with my boarding pass - so nervous was I about carrying anything through the metal detector. Finally, I walked through in my stocking feet.
I was already grouchy when the man behind the metal detector stopped me. He attacked me with questions, which for some reason felt personal. He asked if I was wearing anything under my sweatshirt, and then told me I was required to put my sweatshirt on the belt.
It was Boston; it was winter; it was cold. There wasn't a single person in line ahead or behind me who wasn't wearing a sweatshirt or a sweater, and they clearly weren't being "required" to take them off.
As I walked through, there were more questions. He had seen me put down my boarding pass, and while he didn't actually want to look at it, he asked me what would have happened if he had wanted to look at it. I politely - if sardonically - explained that I had just shown the boarding pass to the ID-checker 10 feet away and 45 seconds ago, but he said that the ID-checkers had nothing to do with security. He might have wanted to check my ID again, he pointed out.
He then asked (sarcastically, I thought) if I had ever flown before. Was this my first time? We had a little more back-and-forth, and then he asked me to stand next to him for a little while for some unknown reason - punishment, perhaps? - before letting me go.
I wanted to yell, to talk back, to get his badge number and get him fired. I went away steaming. He had managed to temporarily ruin my day. Traveling alone, I didn't have a friendly witness to complain to once out of earshot, someone who could have verified that everything I did was right and everything he did was wrong. Together, we would have bonded over our sameness and chastised him as the "other."
I did, I admit, call my fiancé to complain, and felt better. Once the fumes stopped coming out of my ears, I was able to think about the situation. The security agent had been disrespectful of me, but hadn't I been just as disrespectful of him? He may have abused his position, but I may have abused my power as a human being: Who could say which was worse?
That's when I remembered the 9/11 report. It said that America had failed to imagine the worst that human beings were capable of. But perhaps a more insidious problem is that we had also failed to imagine the best. In my contact with this man, both of us had lacked the imagination to step into the other person's shoes (proverbially, in his case, since mine were on the conveyor belt). We had seen each other as strangers, and while we both had names, families, and life stories to tell, we had treated each other with scorn.
It hadn't just been a failure of imagination; it had been a failure of humanity.
Maybe America - and the world - would be safer if we dug through our emotional attics and found not only our imaginations, but also our humanity. Treating other nations with respect is impossible if we can't treat the people in our own nation with respect. I didn't know the name of the man sitting next to me on our flight as we shared a six-hour journey across the country, he with his crosswords and I with my computer. I'll probably never see him again.
Maybe if the man at the security station were my next-door neighbor, we would have had a more polite exchange as we completed our duties as responsible agent and responsible passenger.
In a world as large and segregated as ours, we will probably never know most of the people we interact with.
But if we use our imaginations, we could at least treat each other as neighbors. Not only would we be in better moods as we fought our way through protection at the airport, but we might also find that we had a lot less to protect ourselves against.
On my next trip through the obstacle course of airline security, I don't exactly plan to say "Howdy, neighbor." But I do plan to imagine it.