Think back to that Psych 101 class in your sophomore year of college, and dust off the high-falutin’ theory of cognitive dissonance. Outside of the New Yorker I haven’t seen it used much lately, but it’s the term that sprang to mind when I read about the potential for undetectable weapons and/or explosives being secreted onto airplanes that’s behind stringent new TSA screens, especially overseas.
As a reminder, “cognitive dissonance” is the mental stress and pain one experiences when holding contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. In the case of flying, we have all come to rely on the convenience and reliability of being able to catch a flight from virtually anywhere to anywhere on earth. Commercial air service, because it is first and foremost a safe way to travel, has come to be a defining characteristic in how we work and play, so commonplace and accessible that the usual put-down that flying is now “like a bus service” is actually a great compliment. We take frequent and safe air service for granted, like we do clean air, a constant source of electricity, and clean running water.
Like the utilities that have become necessary for maintaining our everyday existence, how could we live without air service? It has become extremely valuable to our way of life. That’s one side of the dissonance.
The other side of the new cognitive dissonance is the top-dog human value of remaining alive. The abject horror of plunging 33,000 feet to be atomized on impact with the earth into nothingness is a contemplative nightmare that infinitesimally low crash statistics have, until now, kept at bay. Every time we very frequent flyers walk down a Jetway to a plane, we hold two boarding passes, one of paper with our seat number, and the other a virtual pass of surety that we will be walking off whole and vertical at our destination. If we didn’t believe flying was safe, none of us would fly again.
Personally, the specter of undetectable devices in the hands of malicious passengers that might bring down a plane fills me with dread. But it’s still all about statistics, and the stats are good for now. I can resolve my own cognitive dissonance of flying on the basis of confidence that effective counter-measures can and will be developed to keep planes safe. So far, so good. I intend to keep on flying.
I just hope that my faith in the system to keep flying safe isn’t like the old joke about the guy who fell from the top of the Empire State Building. As he plummeted past the 59th floor, a woman stuck her head out of a window and yelled, “What’s it like?” “So far, so good,” he said.