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Frank Sesno: Fear in flying

Frank Sesno
Frank Sesno  

By Frank Sesno
CNN Washington Bureau Chief

(CNN) -- I had to travel this weekend, which is something I've done a million times -- drive to the airport, park the car, go through security, make the flight, read the paper.

But it's never been like this. This trip felt as if I'd stepped through the looking glass into a suddenly suspicious world so distorted it was barely recognizable.

I flew from one pained place to another -- Washington Dulles to Boston Logan and back again -- two of the three points of departure the hijackers used for their mission of madness on September 11.

Security was as tight as the airports were empty. Armed guards and police stood sentinel in front of the security checkpoint, vigilant and on edge. Everyone -- security, gate agents, flight attendants -- looked at your ticket, your ID, your face, your eyes, back to your ticket. Say your name. Tell us your destination. Are you traveling alone.

They scanned my bag four times. I couldn't figure out why. After a painstaking search, they found an item I didn't know I had in a zipper pocket I didn't know existed. Fingernail scissors. They tossed them into a bin filled with similar objects that once were treated as innocent instruments of personal hygiene.

The plane, like the airport, was nearly deserted. Maybe 30 people on a 757. Hardly a word. Airport and airplane both practically echoed fear, a manifestation of how far America has to travel before it gets going again.

As I left the United jet after arriving in Boston, I stuck my head in the cockpit to thank the pilots. Both said they're anticipating deadbolts on a reinforced cockpit door soon. Both looked shellshocked and mournful. Both said they fear they'll lose their jobs.

Logan airport was deserted. My footsteps echoed on the floor walking though a concourse that's being renovated. But not a soul could be seen until I stepped past the gated security checkpoint.

The return trip was no less haunting. When I asked a flight attendant how she was doing, she said: "We can't let them beat us." Another attendant spent most of the flight with her back to the passengers, quietly wiping tears from her eyes.

The captain made an unsettling announcement: He wouldn't be flying, he said, if he didn't think it was safe. But if passengers detected a disturbance, he told us, please do something to help -- hit, tackle or throw something at anyone who might be causing the commotion. Look around and introduce yourself to your fellow passengers, he said, you are family back there. They were heroes on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, he concluded; they may have saved the White House or the Capitol.

Later, one of pilots told me privately he thought U.S. pilots everywhere should be armed. Many are former military, he said, and they should be equipped to defend themselves, their plane and their passengers.

Then the airport again. Back in Dulles. Still, very nearly deserted. Not a conversation to be heard. Many of the shops and newsstands empty. In a mobile lounge that holds a hundred or more, it was just me and one other person.

The whole trip struck me as a metaphor for where America finds itself right now -- a nation hunkered down, as confused as it is determined. Wounded and proud.

And still very, very quiet.

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