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Fly naked and no one gets hurt

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In the wake of the attempted bombing of the American Airlines flight from Paris by a terrorist nut with explosives in his shoe, I'm thinking of starting my own airline, which would be called: Naked Air. Its motto would be: "Everybody flies naked and nobody worries." Or "Naked Air — where the only thing you wear is a seat belt."

Think about it. If everybody flew naked, not only would you never have to worry about the passenger next to you carrying box cutters or exploding shoes, but no religious fundamentalists of any stripe would ever be caught dead flying nude, or in the presence of nude women, and that alone would keep many potential hijackers out of the skies.

It's much more civilized than racial profiling. And I'm sure that it wouldn't be long before airlines would be offering free dry-cleaning for your clothes while you fly.

Well, you get the point: If the terrorists are just going to keep using technology to become better and better, how do we protect against that, while maintaining an open society — without stripping everyone naked?

I mean, what good is it to have a free and open America when someone can easily get on an airplane in Paris and bring a bomb over in the heel of his shoe or plot a suicide attack on the World Trade Center from a cave in Kandahar and then pop over and carry it out?

This is America's core problem today: A free society is based on openness and on certain shared ethics and honor codes to maintain order, and we are now intimately connected to too many societies that do not have governments that can maintain order and to peoples who have no respect for our ethics or our honor codes.

Remember the electronic ticket machines that were used for the Boston-New York-Washington shuttles? Ever use one? Not only were you automatically issued your ticket with a credit card by pressing a touch-screen, but they asked you — electronically — "Did you pack your bags yourself?" and "Did any strangers give you anything?" And you answered those security questions by touching a screen! Think about the naive trust and honor code underlying those machines.

We are entering a highly problematic era, one that we are just beginning to get our minds around. We are becoming keenly aware of how freedom and order go together (see the Ashcroft debates). For America to stay America, a free and open society, intimately connected to the world, the world has to become a more ordered and controlled place.

And order emerges in two ways: It is either grown from the bottom up, by societies slowly developing good democratic governance and shared ethics and values, or it is imposed from the top down, by non-democratic, authoritarian regimes.

But in today's post-Cold War world, many countries to which we are connected are in a transition between the two — between a rigid authoritarian order that was imposed and voluntary self-government that is being home-grown. It makes for a very messy world, especially as some countries — Afghanistan being the most extreme example — are not able to make the transition.

"The problem with top-down control is that more governments around the world are fragmenting today, rather than consolidating," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. "At the same time, America's technologies are being universalized — planes that go faster and faster and electronics that are smaller and smaller — but the American values and honor system that those technologies assume have not been universalized. In the hands of the wrong people they become weapons of mass destruction."

So there you have our dilemma: Either we become less open as a society, or the world to which we are now so connected has to become more controlled or we simply learn to live with much higher levels of risk than we've ever been used to before.

Or, we all fly naked.

New York Times News Service