Not so long ago you could wander into an American airport and get on an airplane without any identification at all. You needed just one document for a domestic flight, a paper ticket; these were complicated affairs, multiple carbons in red ink stapled into a folder, and it was a hassle to buy them in advance. But once you had one, the paper airline ticket was like cash. You could sell or give it to a friend–that friend had to be of the same gender, is all–and there was exactly zero chance of running into any trouble at the airport or on the plane. People would sell them in the “classified advertisements” in the newspaper, if they had to change their plans! You could pick them up for a song, sometimes.

Also, when your grandma came to visit, you could meet her inside the plane, practically, and help carry her bags: there were no security gates, no scanners, no need for anyone to part with his shoes or belt or dignity.

This, despite the fact that there were 34 hijackings of U.S. aircraft to Cuba in 1969 alone. People calculated their odds back then and figured they’d be fine. They got on the plane, much the same way we get on the train today. Nobody screens you to get into a subway car.

Air travel these days means having to deal with loads of bureaucracy and ridiculous demands and tiny bottles of shampoo and sunscreen in a plastic bag of regulation size (that is, unless you want to pay $100 for the special Fast Pass thingy, and you’re at one of 35 airports and six airlines participating.) But sometimes you must go on the airplane, so I have a whole system with the laptop sleeve and my platform clogs and all that jazz and it all goes into the long line of plastic tubs, and through the Habitrail I go. (I always ask to be felt up, for I am scared of the cumulative radiation, and except for this one crazy time in Copenhagen where a huge Danish guy had me nearly leaping out of my skin with alarm, a nice lady no-nonsensically feels me up, because if the backscatter X-ray is not dangerous then why have they been banned in Europe, I’d like to know.)

The TSA has long been plagued with accusations of incompetence, waste and corruption. Calls for reform have come from Republicans who would clearly prefer to see the lucrative airport security business outsourced to their friends in the private sector, as a recent report recommends. The whole thing seems like kind of a wheeze, really.

“The government took over screening at about 450 airports in early 2002 and hired more than 45,000 workers,” according to the New York Times back in 2005 (they’re up to 52,000 now, , according to Bloomberg.)

The Times reported that “[i]n January [2005], the acting inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, Richard Skinner, testified that ‘the ability of T.S.A. screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to Sept. 11, 2001.'”

In any case, getting through all of the palaver at the airport is like, whatever, provided the specific individual bureaucrat or apparatchik with whom we are faced appears to be on our side, and not on the side of The Man. Best case, the customs officer or airport security guy in question will shepherd you through the maze, even scheme a little bit to help you get through.

A marvelous scene in The Incredibles, you may recall, illustrates these ideal conditions. Here, an exhausted insurance adjuster throws caution to the winds and surreptitiously helps a little old lady to get her claim approved.

There’s a dual message in this scene: one, that ordinary generosity is heroic and noble; two, that ordinary people can successfully unite against the oppressive and/or greedy practices of the Man.

This comforting feeling of Us against Them is still largely prevalent in New York. The 9/11 catastrophe seemed to reinforce what was already a very strong and noble esprit de corps among the inhabitants of Manhattan. New Yorkers endure a very uncomfortable way of life together in an outwardly bitter but inwardly brave and friendly spirit. Once in a while, yes, someone might poach your cab in the rain, but for the most part, visiting foreigners (e.g. Californians, like me) venturing out into Manhattan will find themselves being grumpily rescued by the natives from all sorts of indigenous perils such as getting lost, hurt, confused, fleeced, trampled, poisoned, freaked out, etc., often several times a day. New York has therefore ever symbolized, for this visitor at least, invincible kindness, generosity and patience in the face of adversity.

But paradoxically, the 9/11 catastrophe was also exploited in such a manner as to sow the seeds of a police state. Not only in New York City, but all over the United States, the fear of terrorism has poisoned the natural friendliness and democratic impulses of our people. Guantanamo, Secrecy, Total Information Awareness, Stellar Wind. These things are alien to the basic American character, which is manifestly one of Us vs. Them, as it was from the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, and even before that. Traditionally, Americans have trusted far more in individuals, in friends and associates and neighbors, than in authority.

But then we began to suspect every stranger might be what that horrible Bush person used to call “a terrist.” Paranoid stories like 24 began to depict, and perhaps to breed, a fearful citizenry that requires authority to protect it from all manner of evils, and values a chimerical “security” over freedom, kindness, solvency, and sanity.

So now ours is the nation with the uniformed creepos refusing to listen or to make an exception, the multitude of loyal representatives of the Man making things terrible for ordinary people. Oh yes, and we can throw pretty much anyone in jail, too, on the slightest pretext, and with no charges, citing concerns of “national security.” Quite commonly now, it appears to be Them against Us. Chillingly so, if you were demonstrating at UC Davis or Zuccotti Park.

Decades ago the odds used to be pretty good that the police, bureaucrats, airport security guys, et al. in nearly any American city would be on your side. The scary places to go were places like the former Yugoslavia, where they would be all stern and forbidding and bleak, and you might be thinking yoicks, they’ve gone off with my passport and now I could be just shoved in whatever cell and they’d be coldly laughing or worse yet, silent.

Now the United States has turned into the feared destination. Do you think we’re becoming the Baddies?

So it was particularly alarming for those of us who love New York to see, for example, New York’s Finest misbehaving so badly during the runup to May Day and the Occupy troubles.

The fearful police-state mentality is most readily visible to most of us at the airport, where any American citizen may easily be made to feel like a criminal, be subjected to humiliation and made to accept rudeness and suspicion, every bit as if you were an extra in The Lives of Others. We are becoming the totalitarians whom we once mocked and to whom we felt justly superior, for we defined our nation as being intrinsically different from totalitarian places, kinder, better, more democratic.

This alteration really came home to me last month when I was passing through the airport in Belgrade (yes! in the scary, totalitarian Communist former state of Yugoslavia.) Nowadays in Belgrade they are far more like we used to be, helping you get the hell out of there pronto. They seem so friendly and inclusive, eye-rolling toward authority and silly rules, and you can keep your shoes on. An encounter with the kids the airport who are meant to be checking your passport or scanning your bags is more likely to turn into an opportunity for them to practice English than to subject you to the third degree.

But there is grounds for hope, because if I had to choose the best city in which, for example, to fall down and like, break your leg, I would still choose New York. Whose inhabitants, though liable to be making a lot of sardonic and even slightly hurtful remarks about your lack of brains or coordination, would also be getting your mangled bod into an ambulance p.d.q.

Maybe there have always been two Americas, in an uneasy truce with one another from the beginning: the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave on one side, and an awful, oppressive place full of lily-livered, naysaying, gay-bashing, illegally-detaining varmints on the other. A caricature of America, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth in it, as Robert Hughes once described it in his magnificent screed against Jean Baudrillard in the NYRB:

…the alienated and sinister America of film noir, the vengeful and paranoid America that let McCarthy ride and killed the Rosenbergs, the booming paradisical America of tailfins and rock ‘n’ roll, the megadeath America of the White Sands proving ground.

It is to be hoped that we will soon return to our senses, and cause those qualities that still prevail in New York to take a firm hold again, and to spread out to all the airports (and board rooms, schools, courtrooms, universities and offices and playgrounds) of our country. Only now we’ll be able to sell our extra plane tickets on Craigslist.

(Featured Image: Frankenstoen/Flickr; Ticket Image: Wikimedia)