'Sacrifice' in the airport screening line

Americans everywhere at home are in torment. They are being asked for what today seems to pass as the supreme sacrifice — undergoing intrusive body searches for their own and their country's safety.

There was a time in not-too-distant memory when the word "sacrifice" meant something here — such as during World War II and the Vietnam War. Then, Americans had to lay their lives on the line in the tens and hundreds of thousands for it.

That fact was particularly true in the 1941-45 fight against German and Japanese totalitarianism, in which 405,000 Americans died, literally in defense of our political and democratic system, as imperfect as it may be.

It was true, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Vietnam from the early 1960s through 1975, when another 58,000 Americans lost their lives and many thousands more were wounded in a failed effort to deny communism another outpost in Southeast Asia.

In both cases, many of the Americans killed had volunteered for military service and many more had been drafted. But, either way, their sacrifice was complete and multiplied by the grief of the families they left behind as they served and died.

The World War II veterans have been dubbed the Greatest Generation not only for their valor but also for the more demonstrable achievement of ridding the world of Nazism and fascism. In Vietnam, the victims were just as dead, but their sacrifice was colored by the bitter opposition at home to a war widely considered either foolhardy or botched.

The mobilization of the home front in World War II was a marvel of national solidarity and ingenuity, in which both the manpower and industrial muscle of the nation were rallied amid of mood of collective determination and resolve, as well as personal sacrifice.

For nearly four years, Americans at home endured rationing of food and gasoline on top of the agonies of separation and fear for departed loved ones, career interruptions and all the other ramifications of what passed then for a total war effort.

During the drawn-out Vietnam adventure, a more lax selective-service system granted occupational and educational deferments that in ways often sowed domestic squabbling. Also, a growing public protest based variously on disagreement with the legitimacy, goals and conduct of the war eventually spilled out onto the Main Streets of scores of American cities.

But throughout both wars, the personal sacrifices at home went on. For a time in the Vietnam years, President Lyndon Johnson sought to provide both guns and butter to placate the home front, but in the end the public will slipped away.

Now comes another time, when the threat to the national well-being is not massive military hordes in Europe and Southeast Asia bent on world domination, as characterized in those two earlier wars, but from a new renegade, stateless terrorism based in the Middle East.

Its modus operandi of hijacked or infiltrated jet aircraft as a prime delivery system of mayhem has obliged American officialdom to devise a wide and hugely expensive protective barrier at the nation's airports. The latest defenses include electronic body scans and in some cases personal hand-frisking for hidden explosives of one sort or another.

At last, it seems, Americans at home are being asked by their government to make a real sacrifice, including — as it has been inelegantly been phrased — having their own "junk" touched for their and the greater national good.

What may we be asked to suffer next? Giving up smoking? Loss of free movies on the Internet? A reduction in the Twitter limit from 140 to 100 characters? How much deeper into our economically stressed but still-comfortable lives must we be asked to "sacrifice" to cope with our latest national peril?

For nine years now, we have been fighting "the war on terrorism" with the Americans serving and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families at home bearing the overwhelming brunt of the burden. This latest furor over pesky airport security measures is a tempest in the screening line. The squeamish can always stay home for Thanksgiving and honor another great American tradition — watching football on television.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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