At a recent State Department briefing, a reporter asked about US airport screening procedures for Indian diplomats. The diplomats have complained about what they consider aggressive physical searches at US airports.
The reporter said such searches were apparently now taking place at Indian airports for diplomats headed to the United States.
Spokesman Mark Toner told the reporter that he did not know about the Indian airport screening incident.
"We do have specific security requirements, and we're committed to ensuring that those are met," Toner told the reporter.
The exchange caught my attention. I have been doing some extended reporting on changes in security practices and laws since the September 11th attacks.
At least the diplomats are getting in with only their dignity mussed. Civil liberties groups say they believe hundreds, if not thousands of people, are wrongly banned from flying commercial jets within or to the United States, for reasons the federal government says it cannot reveal on national security grounds. A lawsuit involving, among others, four US military veterans, is now working its way through the courts.
Notice the beginning of the last paragraph: "At least the diplomats are getting in..." Like other Americans, I have made the mental concession to the idea that extra screening is here to stay, no matter who you are. Authorities argue that not screening means we are making it easier for "terrorists" to strike.
'Is regulation necessary?'
A decade on, we Americans routinely say, "It’s not a total ban in liquids in our carry-ons; it is a way to force us to spend money on baggage fees".
It is easier to say this, than to ask politicians whether the regulation is really necessary, and to change the regulation, even if it is politically unpopular.
More important, Americans do not push back against the rules that require us to reveal far more financial data than necessary when taking out a mortgage or a credit card - rules originally meant to prevent money laundering to terrorists or drug dealers.
We want the house, we want the credit, so we open ourselves to more government scrutiny. And most of us are not aware that it is even happening.
Susan Herman of the ACLU says now is a good time to review the effectiveness of the PATRIOT Act and other national security measures, but right now the political will to reexamine them is not there. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Herman said, "I think we're getting to the situation where we will be sorry, because they're changing the quality of our democracy, on the nature of what it means to be American in ways the public just doesn't know."
What is more, Americans do not want to be bothered. It is really not all that much trouble to hand over a government identification number on a loan application, they reason, or to be x-rayed before boarding a plane. A hassle, yes, but they need the home, the trip, the act of getting on with life.
As for claims of unfair treatment, may I offer this perspective to my Indian friends: in November 2010, I travelled to India to cover the state visit of President Barack Obama. My colleagues and I underwent extensive patdowns at the prime minister's residence, at airports and at hotels.
Oh, we squawked about it: "Hey, we're Americans, we're with the White House!"
No matter. Just as every Indian citizen going into those airports and hotels and government offices had to be searched, so too did we.
The Indian government's view: a year after Mumbai, neither class nor rank nor passport rendered any of us immune to a security search.
The United States shares the same view. Will Americans have the public conversation, imagined by the ACLU's Susan Herman, to revise this and many other security measures imposed after 9/11? This reporter is ready to take notes.