Thursday, July 21, 2011

Routine Bites Hard

Air travel is a metaphor for decaying America. Maybe a microcosm. Perhaps a tattered symbol. Whatever it is, the service blows, seats are cramped, jets are old, and passengers increasingly surly.

USA Today covered some of this nasty ground, but there's a deeper backdrop. In the past year and a half, I've flown more than I have in my entire life. I'm an air regular, intimately familiar with various airports. There you see the classic cross-section of types, united mostly by frustration and boredom. You not only get an immediate sense of how big this country is, but how atomized our population remains.

Probably inescapable, given the control our owners enjoy. But it isn't an excuse. Think of the millions streaming though airports, filling stadiums, churches, malls, and trade shows. Countless people of varying aptitudes, held in place by shared nationalist myths and relentless propaganda. It's quite a triumph for our keepers. Should things get out of hand, they have a militarized police apparatus to protect them. But for now they have little worry. We're too eager to comply, believing we have a stake in a game fixed by those we'll never meet.

William Burroughs once quoted a Black queen, "Some people are shits, darling." A basic truth. Part of doing business. But how many shits are created by this anxiety-ridden culture? How many bright, compassionate people are pushed into the muck? Perhaps Devo was right: Humans are bad spuds de-evolving at an accelerated pace. Yet a system based on cheap sensation and personal alienation plays a serious role in shaping attitudes. The question is, how long do we let this drag on?

While waiting for flights, most travelers want nothing to do with each other. Crammed in the same space, they zone out through their electronic toys. Courtesy is rare. Recently at Detroit Metro, I sat near a brawny kid who was listening to speed metal on his headphones. I know this because the volume was so cranked that I wondered why the kid bothered to cover his ears. A few people moved to other seats, but most remained, pretending not to hear the thump thump thump blasting from his head.

His expression was of sullen defiance. Looking at the discomfort he created, the kid smiled, then turned up the volume. He was large and muscular, which I suspect is why no one told him to turn down his music.

He openly played on this. When the flight was set to board, the kid slid his still-thumping headphones around his neck and told the airline rep that he was a solider destined for Afghanistan. She dissolved, gushing about his bravery and service. The people who were annoyed now smiled at him. The kid put his headphones back on, speed metal bouncing off the jet bridge walls.

It was instructive. You had an obnoxious kid, intimidated travelers, and military worship in one place. There wasn't an honest connection in sight. Mix in my voyeurism and the scene was complete. No sharing. No effort to find common ground. No civility. Just a detached playing of roles. I felt some guilt for not asking the kid to lower his music, to honor whatever chivalrous code a war-bound soldier possesses. But his semi-crazed look frightened me as well. Maybe he was prepping to join a Kill Team.

Fortunately, the kid sat in the rear of the plane while I was near the front. I opened the New York Times to a story about Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladesh-born Muslim shot in the face by Mark Stroman, a racist Texan who flipped out after 9/11, killing two other people he assumed were Muslims. Bhuiyan survived, but lacked health insurance. He went through hell trying to recover. Bhuiyan's marriage suffered, he went blind in his right eye, fell into poverty and depression. And yet, Bhuiyan forgave Stroman and lobbied against his execution.

This lifted my spirits. Here's a beautiful example of what is possible. Bhuiyan's forgiveness eventually touched and changed his assailant. Stroman confessed to his brutal ignorance, overwhelmed by Bhuiyan's attempts to keep him alive. How genuine Stroman was is unknown, but the alternative was merely more hatred, deeper division, and added suspicion. The lesson is clear.

States, on the other hand, aren't into forgiveness. They are mechanisms of control and violence. Texas is hardly an exception. The court denied Bhuiyan's request to meet privately with Stroman. His plea for clemency was also ignored. Last night, Stroman was executed by lethal injection. His last words were:

"Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain. I love you, all of you. Goodnight."

This from a white supremacist who called himself an "Arab slayer." What's our excuse?

ABOVE: Banksy, Love Is In The Air (Flower Thrower) 2006.