Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Pan For Security Theatre

I'm reluctant to relate this story, because I am happy that the Holy Father's visit to the US and Philadelphia went so well. I am proud of both the area I grew up in and my faith that has been on display these past few weeks. I'm happy to see the spirit that has reigned here recently, and want to see it continue, and certainly don't want to rain on the parade.

That part of the story is true, but so is my story, and I feel like I need to share it so that it is not repeated for other people.

First, I want to say that nearly everyone we encountered in any kind of official capacity yesterday was extremely helpful and friendly, and carried out their duties with the utmost professionalism. Standouts for me were the Philadelphia police officers we spoke to, the security guard outside the Comcast building, and everyone involved in the PATCO high-speed line transportation between New Jersey and the city. The exceptions were likely at the end of a very long and difficult day. My complaints are not directed at the people in the front lines.

I found out that Pope Francis's visit would coincide with my father's 75th birthday, and decided that would make for a nice combination trip for our family, based in Seattle, that had not visited my family in South Jersey in several years. This meant separate vacations, since my wife was committed to attending her family reunions in Michigan, which it was not possible for her to attend the previous few years as well. We purchased our plane tickets, arranged for make-up school work for my 10 and 11 year old daughters.

We did enjoy the week here, which included a trip to the beach, and birthday party for my father with a number of relatives, and geared up for the big event.

My mother had managed to acquire tickets to the papal mass and the passes for the PATCO trains. We left at 10 am for the 4 pm Mass. As mentioned, the train ride to the city was very smooth, and everyone was in good spirits. We worked our way through Center City to where we were (politely) directed to the checkpoint for ticketed attendees.

We entered the line shortly before 1 PM.  Where we would remain for the next four hours, until after the recessional hymn. This involved having to re group out family which had been separated just to get across the street a block from the checkpoint, and then having security personnel threaten to shut down the entry point that we had been waiting to approach for more than four hours.

Reports of the security lines include things like songs, prayers, good spirits, water bottles provided by Wawa, and, while there was disappointment, gratitude to be part, if only peripherally, of such an amazing event.

There is truth to that. But it also involved struggling to keep our family together in a two block If the wait with no access to bathrooms or room to stretch or rest. Our party included my nearly 70 year old mother and my daughter with a chronic illness, and we were probably among the better off groups. As it became apparent we would not get in before the Mass was over, I was overwhelmed with sadness that I had led my mother and daughters on this long pilgrimage that ended at a security line. 

If it were only a couple hours, and/or culminated with us getting to participate in at least part of the Mass, it would probably be a brief blip in an overall wonderful day. I understand that this was an event of unprecedented scale, and some unpleasant experiences were inevitable.

Still, I don't think our family's experience was entirely necessary. In particular, I don't think we need to let security concerns dominate events like this to the degree that they do. Nobody wants to be the person who scales back security to find a horrific event, but I think we need to give our leaders permission and space to do that.  We need to stop accepting "it's just the world that we live in" as a reason to submit to these things, and accept that almost anything worthwhile will involve some risk. We need to stop handcuffing kids who make clocks. We need to think parents are capable of installing their own car seats (and if they're not, insist on making some that are).

Again, I don't mean to dampen the spirits of those for whom this was a wonderful event, or besmirth the efforts of people who were working hard in a tough situation. But my experience was part of it to, and I think the story needs to be told so we can start working to prevent it from happening again.
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