Originally published in the College Voice at Connecticut College.
I don’t care for flying. Short of stopping in the jetway, spread-eagle, like a cat being put into a box, I must admit to at least a few strong reservations. (These are helped little by chatty folks in airport Starbucks airing their dirty “my worst flight” laundry.) From the take-off-your-shoes line at security to the bump of landing gear on asphalt, I would simply rather be elsewhere.
Things start small. At least this is a big plane, I say to myself. It should be a smooth ride. I think to add, JFK, Jr. didn’t die in an Airbus crash.
And the monster reveals itself.
Every aspect of human flight poses a problem. How does it work? How does it not not work? My mind races through images of smoking, spiraling destruction and the phrase, “loss of cabin pressure.” Do I honestly believe that one of the engines will detach itself from the wing and send us spiraling into some fly-over pasture at breakneck speed? Do I have that little faith in metal? Possibly.
From my TSA-approved belongings I select a talisman—a gimp bracelet from summer camp, an especially shiny penny—which quickly becomes my only link to sanity, clutched in a clammy fist from takeoff to landing. Waiting in a row of attached chairs at the gate, I infuse it with all the magical protective power my Liberal Arts Agnosticism will allow.
At our cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, having survived takeoff, I think back to the airport terminal and admit to having played a guilty, self-consciously absentminded and shamefully Caucasian game of Spot the Terrorist. Is that guy Middle Eastern or South Asian? All manner of white sociopaths seemed to escape me—Paging Ted Kaczynski, Ted Kaczynski to Gate 9, please—in favor of people who look like Ahmed Al-whoever, scowling on CNN. Okay. Most people here look like me. This is when we feel safest, of course: swathed in a crowd of ourselves.
People pose an infinitely greater threat to safety—to the illusion of safety—than technology ever has, eight miles above the Earth or two hundred feet beneath the English Channel. Technology works. That’s what it’s made to do—nothing more, nothing less. Proximity and vulnerability to each other are less avoidable at 39,000 feet than at five and a half.
In seat 15A, (which has been bolted to the metal framework of the plane and would under no circumstances slide out the teeny plane window) I give the ninety-pound blonde next to me a once-over—a nod to equal-opportunity paranoia. Those white Keds might just contain the feet of a murderous sociopath, mere inches from her next victim (me!). Your barrettes don’t fool me, I tell her with my eyes, but she’s lost in her Nora Roberts. Even if she weren’t an insatiable killing machine, and even if she were reading Danielle Steel instead, the fact remains that technology fails us less often than people do.
Today, we have less to fear from the failure of technology than from the actions of human beings. Plane crashes make news because they shouldn’t happen, logically, statistically, and by any measure of reason. But of course it’s always been this way—people have always been more dangerous than machines. A rock is simply a rock until thrown; a knife is a tool until brandished. They say people kill people, not guns. The very existence of explosive technology speaks to the perverse ingenuity of man, coaxing the lethal from the innocuous. These damn thumbs.
Eventually, the plane lands. Our destination has become our location, and life continues in much the same way it always has. The plane probably flies somewhere else after everyone gets off—who ever knows? Leaving is always the most pleasant part of the flight, and one hardly has time to wonder about planes. The journey is complete, and we all slip back into business as usual. I release my talisman back into the deep recesses of my backpack, and suddenly the lady with the Keds seems as ordinary as an unfriendly airport food court worker.