Recently, Nilas Martins, principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, was stopped in Washington, DC, by gun-wielding policemen. They checked him out and let him go, but the incident prompted National Public Radio to seek the advice of Letitia Baldrige, the Kennedy-era doyenne of protocol, to see if there might be an appropriate way to comport oneself while enduring martial law. Crisis etiquette, purred Ms. Baldrige, “goes back to basic character…. You just look past the assault rifles.” With all due respect, suspect profiles of the new millennium–to whose ranks we welcome tall, Danish-born ballet dancers–would be best advised to turn to Ms. Baldrige’s long-lost half-sister, LaTeesha, for tips about comportment under lockdown.
“Keep your eyes on the assault rifles and your hands in plain view,” Ms. LaTeesha prayed me to relay to Mr. Martins.
She and I were sitting in her tastefully appointed salon located in the exclusive enclave of Southeast Estates, a grated community in Washington, DC.
“Shouldn’t that be ‘gated’?” I asked over an elegant tea of finger sandwiches and marrons glacés.
“Not at all,” she replied. “When the gates to one’s community are shrouded in suspicion, inhabitants risk being taken for communists or cultists.” Gesturing toward the lovely weave of wrought iron bars over her windows, she observed, “Grates are more consistent with civic virtues like independence and autonomy. In Southeast, every home is a bunker unto itself.”
I asked Ms. LaTeesha how the well-bred suspect profile might deal with the vapors and vexation attending the burden of constant scrutiny: During my travels to her home, Pinkerton guards in the bus station had wanted to search my backpack, and airport security had refused to let my 10-year-old son board the plane because he had no identification other than his library card.
“Smelling salts,” advised Ms. LaTeesha. “A little Waterford vial of ammoniated smelling salts should be carried next to one’s hanky, as a fashionable and unobtrusive bracer in the face of minor interrogation. A flask of sherry is permitted in the wake of routine strip search. And you will be forgiven a long draught of fortified malt liquor when a loved one has been detained in an unidentified location.”
I asked if she didn’t think it insufferable that a 10-year-old should be pressed to provide official documentation to travel from one city to another. She looked at me sharply: “Doesn’t your son have a passport?”
“To peregrinate within our native homeland?”
“It’s a nice touch. All the finer classes of suspect profile accessorize their children with passports. You’d be amazed at how many more doors open than with the lowly library card. Flash a passport, the airlines will put an X in front of his name and, lo, the shadow of Tom Ridge will pass over.”
She thought for a moment. “A suspect profile is a bit like a celebrity. People watch your every move. If you take it as impugning your status, your complexion will acquire the unbecoming ruddiness of the lower classes. One must always code oneself a bright spring green.”
I helped myself to the gravitas of crisp anchovy toast: “But it’s not easy being green if others see you only as emergency red. What happens when some politician running for office goes on a police ride-along and the cameras come bursting into your bedroom along with the SWAT team and it takes two months before they realize they’ve got the wrong house and meanwhile you’re all over the evening news and the next episode of Cops?”
“Always wear clean underwear,” said Ms. LaTeesha coolly.
“But is it not so,” I pushed, “that recent intimations from a certain Mr. Rumsfeld might lead one to believe that the Saturday night lineup of reality TV shows as well as the entire Fox Network contravene Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention, prohibiting displays pandering to curiosity, insult or humiliation?”
“Geneva?” she said, waving a hand languorously. “Isn’t that over behind France? And did you say ‘convention’? Whatever would that mean for our manifest destiny to act alone? I’m surprised at Cousin Rummy. He isn’t usually one to confine himself with the strictures of Old Europe. Do remind him that the New World Order depends on enterprising independent actors. Like Serbia. Or Turkey.”
“I’ll try,” I said, “but he’s a bit under the weather, stricken with a bad case of shock and awe that the Iraqis have not yet risen up to greet us as their liberators.”
“That boy never did have street smarts,” sighed Ms. LaTeesha. “Hollering on the corner like that, about ‘teaching them peace’ and ‘teaching them consequences’ all in the same breath. It might confuse the more academic of his foes, but it might also strike some of them as very bad manners indeed, even if he does call the whole thing ‘psychological operations.'”
I gazed into the tea leaves at the bottom of my cup. I pondered how easily Iraqi soldiers were able to ambush American soldiers by pretending to surrender gratefully because someone in Washington had profiled the Iraqi masses as those-who-would-love-us-to-invade-and-await-deliverance. I thought of how hard it was for my 10-year-old to board an America West flight armed only with a library card and a pocketful of Hershey kisses. Call me Cassandra, but we need to address the failures of intelligence, the skewed anxieties that cost us so…
“Do you suppose,” I finally asked, “we will ever reverse the order of these courtesies and do deep background checks on Mesopotamian history before hoisting our flag on their turf? And liberate our children to fly, like birds, like long-lost, much-loved relatives?”
“I say watch your back,” sniffed Ms. LaTeesha. “Lemon? Cream?”