The absurdity of fear


I’m flying for the first time since the arrest last month in London of a dozen people accused of planning to blow up several airliners, with bombs assembled onboard out of various ordinary liquids. The more I read about this plot the more amateurish and improbable it sounds, but that hasn’t discouraged the authorities from implementing a new set of rules and rituals, which will supposedly help keep us safe from terror.

When I get to the airport I discover passengers are forbidden to bring liquids or gels of any kind onboard their flights. This includes toothpaste, a hardly-used tube of which is hidden within my carry-on bag. This discovery forces me to grapple with a difficult political and moral issue: Just how much do I love freedom?

Do I love freedom enough to do my part, small as it may now seem, in combating the international Islamo-fascist conspiracy to destroy the West and convert the entire world to fundamentalist Islam? After all, as the president has just reminded us yet again, if we do not fight the terrorists on the streets of Baghdad, we will have to fight them here.

Sadly, the answer appears to be "no." I decide I will attempt to smuggle the contraband onto my flight. I realize, of course, that freedom isn’t free — but neither is toothpaste, and there must be a good $2 worth of the potentially deadly substance still inside this particular tube.

Within seconds, the security breach is complete, and the forbidden item is secreted in the overhead bin above my seat. The woman sitting next to me isn’t so lucky: As she is boarding, the authorities search her handbag, and seize a bottle of lip gloss. (It’s a little-known fact that, if they were to fall into the wrong hands, lip gloss and toothpaste could be combined to produce weapons-grade plutonium.)

Perhaps her T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a potentially anti-American slogan ("Save Darfur Now"), alerted the authorities to her subversive intentions.

Luckily, the flight arrives in New York without incident, and I take a cab into the city. The cabdriver, a swarthy, bearded fellow, looks quite a bit like a terrorist, and he certainly drives like one. I estimate our trip on the Long Island Expressway subjects me to a level of personal risk approximately 200 times greater than that I would have faced if, upon boarding, every passenger on my just-completed flight had been issued a grenade.

The next day, I ride the subway downtown. I’m struck by how here beneath the streets of the city that has endured the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, a system of travel that transports hundreds of thousands of people every day operates with essentially no security restrictions whatsoever.

I carry a suitcase onto my train that, for all the authorities know, contains automatic weapons, or plastic explosives, or a crude but potentially devastating nuclear device. No one seems to mind, and, when I get downtown, I ask the hostess of a bistro if I can leave my suitcase behind the bar while I walk around the city.

She readily agrees to this flagrant violation of homeland security, despite the fact that, given the restaurant’s location (Park Avenue), even a small explosion could kill or injure dozens of high-value targets, including real estate moguls, fashion models, and beautifully groomed Lhasa Apsos.

It’s then that I realize why this city, despite the horror of a September day five years earlier, has voted overwhelmingly against President Bush’s so-called War on Terror, with all of its phony alerts and pointless rules and useless rituals.

Unlike George Bush’s America, New York City is not afraid.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)