Essay: Groping for Fish in a Shampooless World

When I was in college, I had a dream that took place in a vague future version of our society, in which all objects that could potentially cause bodily harm were banned.  One such "weapon" in my dream was fishing line, considered dangerous as a possible garroting tool.  In my dream, an active black market in fishing line (among other black markets in numerous other "dangerous" but practical objects) kept well-to-do anglers active in their now-underground hobby.  I was a sophomore (it would have been 1996 or 1997), and this marked the first time I used dream-matter as inspiration for  fiction.  The resulting novella was poorly developed, with only a handful of moments that I was happy with.  (I have not reviewed the manuscript in at least a decade, and I doubt very much whether I would be anything but depressed by its contents should I do so now.)

However, reflecting on recent events from the past several years - up to and including this week's banning of toner and ink cartridges from cargo flights - I have come to feel some small degree of personal satisfaction at least insofar as the (wholly unintended) prophecy of my dream-story can be appreciated.

Paranoia forces us into a protective, defensive stance that naturally close off avenues of freedom as we set up and enforce new rules and regulations to make us feel "safer."  The tendency of post-9/11 Americans to embrace restrictions on liberty in the name of ensuring their own safety has been documented widely by writers far more perspicacious than I.  But let's think about this in the context of fiction for a moment.  In my dream, I found material for an outlandish, satirical story.  As with twenty-year-old jokes on The Simpsons, and several of the more outrageous concepts developed by the Monty Python troupe upwards of four decades ago, satire has an uncomfortably regular tendency to morph into some form of reality.  My amateurish novella was nowhere near the league of these great contributions to the form, but what I'm getting at is: Are we that far from effectively banning certain hobbies and other routine activities in the name of safety?  

We have our toiletries routinely seized and trashed; we are forced to remove some clothing; lowly airport workers are now allowed to see the most intimate contours of our genitals; and, most recently, printer cartridges have been added to the "banned" list.  (I love that toiletries are disallowed, but complex electronic machines - such as computers and cell phones, things that are actually capable of carrying or communicating with bombs - are not.  This is to say nothing of the loaded firearms routinely carried by air marshals.)

This is all very old Bush-era news, but under Obama this liberty-curbing approach to "security" continues wholly unchecked, and news stories like the one about the toner cartridges, that would have set liberals aflame with righteous indignation a few years ago, are now treated like commonplace occurrences.  

Satire is a warning system; it hopes not to be prophetic but to avoid whatever imagined hell it portrays.  But we're there now, in a place that satire dreads, and most of us haven't noticed.  And when you drill past the inflammatory nonsense, that's the only really scary part:  We don't care.

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