Afraid of things: opening pill bottles of any description, even homeopathic pills, requires breaking through a layer of plastic. Maybe this reflects an incident years ago when somebody put something bad in a bottle of pills on a drugstore shelf. Or maybe we’re just afraid of anything we put in our bodies—a simplistic interpretation of our passion for organics, but perhaps with a grain of truth.
Afraid of homeless people: almost no one, in my experience, gives even a dime to a homeless person, or looks this person in the eye. Being homeless seems to be the equivalent of being a criminal, although anyone who has tried to find an affordable place to live in our big cities must have realized something about how nearly impossible this is.
Afraid of strangers: speaking to strangers, even in the most casual public situation—no! And while the former excessive attention paid to children—ruffling hair, cooing etc.—was repellant, now no one dares to put a finger on a child or even to speak a harmless word. And yet our abuse of children continues and even accelerates.
As to our ridiculous border inspections, taking off shoes ceased to have any meaning years ago, as the incident of the tennis shoe bomb retreated into the distant past. And no one knows the long term health consequences of passing through the various electronic screening devices, or the psychological effect of having to assume the position: arms overhead, legs spread wide. The demeaning pat-downs are invasive and humiliating.
I have never heard of any credible evidence that these measures have prevented an attack. Instead, they are training citizens, and even children, to obey nonsensical commands, fearful of even making a joke about what is being required.
Going in to and out of Germany and Austria is an entirely different matter: there is no screening of the individual although possessions still go into the tray, and the process is fast and psychologically neutral. Perhaps the citizens and governments of these countries learned seventy years ago that there is no such thing as security; perhaps they also witnessed the long-term damage inflicted by individuals trained to obey.
The people I saw, old and young, well-off and not, of every gender, in the cafes and on the streets in these countries, were not using cell phones or iPads in public. No doubt they did in private. For us, so afraid of many aspects of reality, hiding behind a small screen creates a safety zone. Or seems to—a bubble into which no outside influence or impression can intrude.
So instead of idyllic scenes of the Danube River, I’m including here scenes of World War II destruction. Is it possible that fear of losing one’s life in a bombardment or in front of a firing squad makes ordinary risks seem manageable?
Or at least real danger may encourage a sense of empathy. I can’t imagine that anyone fleeing the Holocaust would think that desperate people fleeing from El Salvador are cynically gaming the system to get into the U.S.
I’m not certain that focusing on “civility”—even in the face of outrageous abuses of language—is wise. We seem to be, if anything, too civil—at least, most of us. I am quite proud of the woman manager of a Red Hen in Virginia who refused, with the agreement of her staff, to serve the president’s shameless apologist, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It was not a civil thing to do, and will result in repercussions for this woman and the restaurant, but it was an act of courage which in these times counts for more than politeness.
The little story illustrates something interesting about women now: Sarah, promoted to the top, disdains ordinary truth, and may have sold her soul to keep her position, whereas the nameless Red Hen manager, with a lot more to lose, chose to act on her principles. As women finally gain a little more access to power, money and prestige, the issue of soul-selling will become acute.
Speaking of which, my haggard soul is still trying to make its way across the Atlantic Ocean to catch up with my body.