while an antsy crowd of us watched the tote board for the departure gate for our slightly late train to Washington (maybe you know the drill: the track number suddenly appears on the sign and everybody dashes to try to grab an alone seat), a woman behind me was carping about the delay: This is ridiculous, What's Amtrak's problem, Why are we standing here, yada yada. I almost turned around and said to her, "Every day, there are people in the Middle East being blown to bloody bits with the help of your tax dollars. There are toddlers in central Africa with parasitic worms eating away at their intestines. There are corpses of parents, drying like snakeskins in the Mexican desert, who didn't make it here to pick your damned strawberries so they could send the money back home. What do you know about hardship? The train is 10 minutes late, for God's sake. Shut the hell up."
We Americans are so spoiled, and so many of us are so clueless about it. What a slew of awful lessons we've yet to learn.
Something I feel I want to add after my post earlier today about our fears about plane travel:
I think our personal risk of being blown up in an airplane is being overplayed in ways that are psychically harmful to each of us. To be sure, what we know as American airport security is a dismal spectacle of underpaid and overwhelmed TSA employees and fairy-tale screening "systems" that cry out for improvement. The problem, though, is that we have leaders who find it economically and politically untenable to wage a true battle against terrorism by, say, altering our international commercial, political, and military partnerships that foster the global explosion in selflessly murderous fundamentalists. (Our stubbornly Israeli-leaning policy in the grotesque war over Palestine is one example; our coziness with Saudi Arabia is another; and there are more.) Instead, our leaders treat such consorting as sacrosanct, and therefore try to define terrorism as chiefly a military and security systems problem: We need to attack with smarter force! We need airport screening systems that protect us! We need government agencies that are up to the job! This fanning of one-sided panic is both cruel and dishonest toward those of us who are about to get on planes and who already have plenty of much more threatening personal risks about which to be afraid: what's in the latest envelope from our hardly-reformed health insurance plan (if we even have one); the shaky status of food and drug safety measures long obstructed by industry; our prospects for keeping or landing a job in an economy in which the non-wealthy come dead last in the "recovery." I have no illusions about the horrible things that can happen in the air. I lost a dear friend when an airliner on which she was a passenger was blown out of the sky some years ago. This is human life and death we are talking about, and that is exactly why Washington's cynical game of over-hyping personal fears while neglecting the true global threats to our security is so abhorrent. It's a game with which you and I cannot afford to play along.
Forgive me if I don't join in the howls of panic about the latest allegedly avoidable failure to keep we American flight passengers snug and secure. And forgive me if I say that the whole post 9/11 notion of "filtering out terrorists" is and will continue to be a theatrically staged performance for a nation in denial. The denial being our refusal to face the contradiction between our relation to the dispossessed of the world and our desire to not be unduly impaired in our virtuous ease of movement.
Yes, an obvious bearer of deep ill will toward the American state made it onto an American-bound plane with an ingenious and ridiculous explosive concoction in his underpants. And yes, but for sheer luck and the perp's bumbling lack of expertise there could have been a horror in the sky above Detroit on Christmas Day. And yes, plenty was known about this man by plenty of folks in plenty of positions in the well-advertised enterprise of American security.
And this phenomenon, in various forms, with occasionally horrific consequences, will happen again. And again.
It will keep happening because there are so many tens or hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who harbor furious beefs with the United States -- some of them legal and vocal American citizens who constitutionally make their dissent known -- that any proportionate "no-fly list" would be far too massive to manage in a democracy but still far too small to screen out any more than a fraction of all the folks who might render harm.
It will keep happening because while America suffers a national anxiety attack about air travel, our passenger trains and highway bridges and subways and buses and shopping malls and office complexes and public parks remain wide open, and we will never be able to significantly secure all of them without paralyzing the nation and ruining our lives as we know them.
It will keep happening because the professionals -- not the amateurs who ignite shoes and underwear -- will always seek the next chink in the armor. Like all guerrilla fighters, they find and strike available targets and then disappear and move on to the next, and their desperation and willingness to die will keep on fueling an ingenuity and audacity that the state operatives who pursue them will never possess. Sorry, but it's true.
It will keep happening because cracking down according to insurgents' past actions -- the unfortunate role of those ordered to defend us -- will never anticipate future inventions of desperation well enough to do us very much good. There will always be another open avenue, another surprise equivalent of plunging an airliner into a skyscraper. Is the best possible international detective work and forward-looking security work essential? Of course. But it will never be enough, and as the heart of a strategy to prevent terrorism it is a joke, just as good detective work and forward-looking police work is a joke in preventing robbery and murder. Good police detectives understand that the reasons why people rob and murder have nothing to do with policing. And anyone doing true anti-terrorism work needs to understand that terrorists' ceaseless motivation to innovate their way through our barriers has nothing to do with the quality of our airport (or highway) security.
Just as cops in bombed-out neighborhoods understand that they are up against poverty, hopelessness, and rage, we bomb-fearing travelers had better understand that we are up against an American tradition of cynically buddying up with brutally convenient states (e.g., Saudi Arabia) and fostering economies worldwide that fuel fundamentalist fury toward American modernity.
Barack Obama understands some of this: even in knuckling under to our next insane war he continues to speak (if timidly) about changing American international behavior. But I don't think he understands it nearly well enough.
In the wake of the Christmas near-disaster in Detroit, the familiar script -- "If we whip our anti-terrorist security system sufficiently into shape we can feel safe" -- just won't fly.
I have meant to post this entry for a while now. The Stimulus Package, with all its inadequacies and its blatantly porcine excesses, includes $1.3 billion of federal funding for Amtrak, which is one of the wisest investments the government could have made, albeit years late.
I have to say that I love trains. I travel that way whenever I can, including cross-country. There is just something about running along those steel rails and feeling and seeing my movement across the land that does something for me. I once had a conversation with someone on a Washington-to-Chicago train in which we both agreed that one problem with planes is that they deliver you to a destination without allowing your soul to prepare to be there. But that's a blog for another day, if ever.
Anyway, the argument for trains goes way beyond metaphysics and subjective pleasures. Our country's public national rail system has been deliberately starved for adequate funds for years while private-sector-dominated transport (highway construction, airlines) has been lavished with federal subsidies. Even with under-equipped and understaffed long-distance trains running late and running out of food (someday I'll tell you about my trip on an L.A.-to-Chicago train that arrived 11 hours late), it is pretty much a miracle that Amtrak has remained functional at all. Throughout the course of its forced starvation, Amtrak has been pelted with "conservative" hoots at its dysfunction. Behind this is a barely-concealed desire to wipe out Amtrak and to privatize rail service. Look at our campaign finance system, overwhelmed as it is with private money, and it is not hard to see where these policy ideas come from.
But federally-run rail service, as much of the world has known for ages, is basic for a civilized country, and at least we now have an Administration that understands this. Trains are far less polluting per passenger than cars, trucks and planes; much more fuel-efficient per passenger than planes and roughly the same as cars; and a far less wasteful and ecologically destructive use of land in highly-populated areas than the endlessly-sprawling web of concrete roads. (See these stats.)
So even with worsening economic forecasts, and the grotesque under-policing of corporate bailouts, and the growing perception that Obama has underestimated the crisis – or maybe because of all these fiscal calamities – the overdue funding of trains is one piece of good news.