Anonymity, stress contribute to inhuman treatment

Published June 1, 2002

AIRPORTS ARE places where I have spent a great deal of my life since I was called to a responsibility requiring so much travel.

Over the years the time spent in airports for each trip has increased. Security requirements mean longer time before departure and the complexities of baggage handling often entail longer time after arrival.

An architect cousin taught me how to use airport time to study the place as a building, to examine its design and compare its efficiency with others I know.

But he also taught me to look for the ways the airport acts to serve, to protect, even to minister to the people who work in it and those who pass through it.

This exercise has given me the habit of closer observation, even in airports I know well. One such place is Heathrow, a huge international airport where things are always changing.

Since last fall, large new signs have appeared there, especially at congested spots. In departure areas the signs are prominent at the security lineup, in arrival areas, and they appear before the immigration desks.

The signs remind passengers in clear language that harassment of airport personnel will not be tolerated. Some signs are posted by the airport authority with regard to their staff, others by the government for benefit of immigration officers. (I have witnessed scenes at airline counters which suggest that similar signs are needed to shield airline personnel from abuse.)

The signs remind even a seasoned traveler like myself that the level of stress associated with travel is increasing, and that we all easily become its victims, even to the point of victimizing others as we try to relieve the stress.

Even though many airport personnel wear name badges, and all travelers are carrying identification, there is a high level of anonymity about personal encounters in airports.

Anonymity helps many interpersonal transactions take place efficiently and appropriately, especially when those transactions are routine and straightforward.

But where unexpected events occur which interrupt or derail them, then anonymity can provide the excuse for treating another human being as less than human.

Long before technological advances had heightened the stress around these issues, but at a time when the human dynamics were exactly as today, Jesus addressed not just this issue, but addressed his disciples – including us – about the issue.

Two of the sayings collected in Matthew’s gospel strike me as significant. I say “strike me” in the sense of “challenge me.”

The first (Matthew 7:1-2) tells me, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged.” If I speak rudely to a ticket agent in Toronto because the Halifax airport is snowed in, I can expect to be held accountable if, the next time I am attacked for something over which I had no control, I am tempted to answer “But it’s not my fault!”

The second (Matthew 7:12) proposes to me, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus gives the level playing field cosmic dimensions and eternal implications.

That word of Jesus tells me that every human exchange, however seemingly routine, is first and foremost human. My actions in that exchange not only affect the other person but will ultimately affect me.

Of course, every brutalizing action I take also brutalizes me, but that psychological insight goes only so far. Jesus tells me the further truth that God sees and hears that action, and that the perfect justice which God is and embodies, metes out perfect justice to me.

Hard news? Maybe. Good news? You bet. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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