In light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it means protecting ourselves from within the borders of the United States against another terrorist attack or from the dangers of those previously unleashed, including the intentional spread of anthrax bacteria in mail parcels.
It stems from a belief that we should be able to get on with our lives in the most normal way possible, free from fear of imminent danger. Literally, secure means free from danger or care; but it also means firm, stable, sure, reliable, certain, without doubt.
In that sense, it seems clear that Homeland Security Office or not, we won't be feeling secure for some time to come, if ever.
Surely those hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs in recent months, or will before Christmas, have no sense of security. They are family members and heads of families who, if they're like typical Americans, barely have a safety net to fall on or a nest egg from which to draw until money starts coming in again.
Our government and media try to make us feel more secure by referring to those thousands of unemployed as mere economic indicators, numbers that prove the existence of a recession rather than people who have to figure out how to pay the rent, how to feed the kids, how to maintain a sense of self and pride when their livelihood has been stripped away.
And is anyone really helped to feel secure by the new presence of guns in public places? Disembarking a plane in Chicago the other night, I felt like someone who had landed in a hostile country, greeted at the gate and in the terminal by dozens of roving soldiers in berets and camouflage, their rifles pointed upward, their bored gazes scanning the crowd.
Can we purchase security, as we think we can buy everything else? Can we shoot our way to security? Bargain for security with bombs, jet fighters and the lives of soldiers and civilians? Can we fake the feeling of security by putting on a united face of national identity when what we really see is the widening class divide, the haves and have-nots more distanced and less engaged in our beloved homeland?
I visited the local emergency room a couple of weeks back, and found myself, along with others, navigating the intensive security gate set up between the lobby and the examining rooms. As I emptied my pockets of change and keys, placing them in a plastic bowl so as not to set off the metal alarm, a winking guard joked, "Where do you keep the gun?"
"That's not funny," I said, then glanced at the gun on his hip, trying to imagine a situation that would force him to pull it from its holster.
It did not make me feel more secure.
And why, I wonder, when the nation feels so insecure, are we encouraged, indeed hounded with patriotic fervor to do all the things that make us feel less secure? "Travel, spend money, go out," we are told. "Get back to your normal life." It goes unspoken, but the echo reverberates, "pretend nothing happened."
I traveled to Washington, D.C. this week and on a beautiful, crisp Sunday afternoon forgot my insecurities for a few moments. Strolling through the long, wooded paths alongside the reflecting pool of the Washington Monument, I watched Americans and tourists of every ethnic makeup imaginable pushing their babies in strollers, stopping to snap pictures, lying on the grass napping, throwing a Frisbee, rolling by on skates or bikes, wrapping themselves in their lovers' arms. Like slowly flowing water, we rolled up to the Lincoln Memorial and climbed the stairs.
I read the 16th president's words about how the nation had to finish what it had begun, the Civil War fought on the American homeland. Then I turned and saw a woman, sobbing in her husband's arms as, overhead, a Boeing 767 roared toward the nearby airport. The Pentagon, I realized, was just across the river and this is just what it must have looked like the morning a jet came flying over this beautiful marble palace, then made a suicidal and homicidal dive into the military headquarters of the nation.
I've been in Washington several days now and the sky is still blue and clear. Armed guards loll about in front of government buildings, gnawing on hamburgers and glancing now and then at the sky. USA Today greets me this morning with the president's warning that the threat to our security is growing as Osama bin Laden attempts to stockpile nuclear weapons. I think of the warheads tucked neatly away, beneath the surface of the skin of our beautiful nation, and wonder at the destructive power in our own hands.
Security, I think, is nowhere to be found. Not for the homeland or for anyone else.