Periscope Depth

a crowd of people turned away

Flying back from West Palm Beach, I passed through the TSA checkpoint without a hitch. The gentleman behind me wasn’t so lucky. I noticed him only because he said something in a loud, disdainful voice while waiting for his bags to emerge from the conveyor belt: one of those sarcastic comments that’s directed at nobody, and therefore directed at everyone. Didn’t make out exactly what it was. Later, while his bag was being wiped down with a chemical swab, he took a few steps toward the side of the security desk – not as a threat, but as an impatient correction, “here, let me show you what this is.” The supervising officer intercepted him and held up a hand. Staredown, then retreat.

Anyone who’s read this blog for longer than eighteen months knows what I think of the TSA, and what I think of the sanctity of institutions in general. I’ve written and spoken approvingly about the use of civil disobedience, artful rulebreaking, and just plain cussedness in expressing dissent from social and legal trends. The person who wrote and said such things should have sided one hundred percent with the traveler, not at all with the uniformed bureaucrats. And yet, conscious as I was of that at the time, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “Oh, just shut up, you asshole.”

You’d be hard pressed to find someone with a greater gulf between his professed admiration for rule breakers and his actual disdain for them*. It grates on me to no end. To see someone get away with breaking the rules, or even raise a fuss about how stupid the rules are, riles me up. My jaw clenches; I start glancing around for an authority figure to put this person in their place. This happens every time, even as I tell myself how silly it is. It can be the most trivial infraction – sneaking a beer into a concert, standing in the aisle of a plane while the Seat Belt light is fastened, making an illegal right turn on red when there’s no traffic – and it doesn’t matter. I hate to see someone getting away with it, while I sit with my hands folded, doing as I’m told.

This doesn’t make me unique. It doesn’t even make me a criminal. History is made by men like me: the idle bystanders, the quiet frowners, the people who like liberty but love civility more. Yes, it’s awful how those black children are treated in Alabama, but why do they have to make such a fuss about it? No, I don’t approve of rounding people up, but you know sometimes those Jews go a little too far. Sure, what the banks got away with is terrible, but why do those hippies have to block traffic? And so on.

It’s the hypocrisy of which I’m most aware and with which I’m least comfortable, though perhaps the one guarantees the other. And I don’t know the cure.

* Outside of The New Republic, that is.