Social Security, Homeland Security, Elusive Security

Suzanne and I are at the point in our lives when it’s time to sign up for Medicare. Yesterday morning we drove to the Social Security office in West Knoxville and pulled in about fifteen minutes before the place opened.

There was already a line, a dozen or so people waiting at the door. Before they opened, the line had grown to almost twice that number. A uniformed man who had been walking around the parking lot came up to the door and unlocked it. We filed in and he followed us.

When we got inside he said, “My name is ________ and I’m with the Department of Homeland Security. Line up on the left side of the hallway next to the wall to allow for egress in case of fire or other emergency.”

We did that, and he began going over the rules. No food, no drink, no this, no that, no weapons of any kind, including (and here he went into a list that covered pretty much every dangerous or sharp object that you could anticipate someone having on their person). I raised my hand and said, “Is this the point where I step out of line and go back to my car and leave my pocketknife there?”

He gave me a half-smile, nodded, and said, “You have anticipated my next statement.”

So I went out to the car and left my knife on the console. After I returned he waved me to the front of the line so I could enter my SSN into the computer and get my number. I sat down next to Suzanne, thinking that I should have left the metal bookmark in the paperback I had brought with me in the car as well. Fortunately, there was no pat-down or body scan.

The actual time we spent signing up was negligible. The clerk asked a few questions, typed a lot on his keyboard, and said to Suzanne, “I’ll have to send this form to your last employer to get your final day of service, but that’s really all I need.”

I said, “Do you need my Social Security Number?”

“No, I’ve already got it.” He grinned and said, “I’ve got all that stuff,” and pointed at the screen, which I couldn’t see. I have to admit that was a little disconcerting, having him say that he already knew everything about me he needed to, since he didn’t bother to use the number I had been issued earlier.

I’ve been thinking about that whole experience, especially how the morning started. The precautions could be considered extraordinary, given that we were gathered in an office that deals with data collection and registration for pensions (among other things), as opposed to, say, an office that houses high-ranking officials, or sensitive government policy plans, or weapons, or thousands of civilians. The counter argument, the Homeland Security argument, is that we don’t know where the next threat is coming from, and so vigilance is necessary. 

We as a people and many of us as individuals are trying very hard right now to make ourselves more secure, whether it’s through the passage of laws, the acquisition of weapons to keep in our homes or on our persons, the restriction of people who belong to one group or another, the willing (or unwilling) surrender of our privacy, or the repetitive insistence on the part of the media, both mainstream and fringe, that bad things and bad people are all around us and we should be constantly on alert. I find little security in any of these measures. I know from experience that laws, or machines, or barriers can only go so far in creating the security we are searching for, and I believe that the more we give up in the name of security, the poorer and more limited our lives become. Barriers operate in both directions, and if we say over and over in many different ways, “Stay away from me! Keep your distance!” there will certainly be unanticipated consequences. 

The poet Jane Hirschfield once said that Zen comes down to seven words: Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention. I believe there is truth in that, and while recognizing the changeable nature of life and its interconnectedness, and setting aside regret about the past and worry about the future to allow ourselves to attend to what’s going on right now does not usually function to give us a sense of external security, it can work to reintroduce us to the world. It’s not easy, at least not for me, but I’ve found it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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