I collect watches. I'm picky, though. They have to be mechanical. No battery-operated quartz movements for me. My wife, who tires of finding these windup beauties on top of our dresser, bought me a case for the collection. That was hardly a solution for an addict. Now the case is full, and the dresser top is "time square" again.
But I learned this week that I shouldn't even think of packing my collection when I fly. I especially shouldn't do this if I also pack cell phones with me as gifts for friends, and never if I also bring along Pepto-Bismol.
As another September dawns, Americans find themselves again taking stock of their progress since terrorism, long simmering beneath the surface, burst into full view in 2001.
Most of us know about the big items. Last week marked the end of the nation's combat mission in Iraq, so the president said. But more of our soldiers may yet die there, and an American presence may be required for years, if not decades, to come.
Conflict rages on in Afghanistan, where a government the United States isn't quite sure it can trust struggles to gain enough force and credibility to maintain a peace that U.S. and allied forces haven't been able to establish with guns.
And speaking of countries we're not sure whether to trust, last week the United States formally added the Pakistani Taliban to its growing list of terrorist organizations America is trying to squeeze out of existence. But, with apologies to the many brave families supporting troops in these hot spots, all of this is happening far from the lives of most Americans. Here at home, it's what we don't see that may count most.
Nine years ago I took my oldest son to New York City. As I wrote in a column a few weeks later, after 9/11, I was amazed at how clean and safe the place was. I was an intern there for a news wire service in 1981, and it was anything but safe back then. By 2001, however, the graffiti was gone from the subways and there were no more Plexiglass barriers to separate fast-food workers from their unruly customers.
But was it really safe? As I wrote in that column: "Now we know it was all a cruel illusion. In the old days, at least you could be street-wise and avoid most trouble. But how can you be street-wise against terrorists?" We were gauging safety by what we could see on the ground. We didn't think to look up in the sky for commercial airplanes.
In the past nine years we have learned to look up, down and everywhere, which brings me back to watches, cell phones and Pepto-Bismol.
The truth is, my watch collection probably wouldn't attract much attention from a TSA agent. That's because my name isn't Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi or Hezam al Murisi, and I am not a citizen of Yemen.
Those two men found themselves in big trouble last week, apparently because al Soofi missed a connecting flight and the airline rerouted him through Amsterdam on the same plane as al Murisi. In al Soofi's luggage were the watches, cell phones and Pepto-Bismol.
To be sure, no laws exist against putting such items in checked baggage. But cell phones have been known to serve as detonators. And any collector of old watches knows that the men who first built and sold Timex watches, for instance, were expert at building timing devices for explosives during World War II (one assumes the company's name, Timex, derives from timed explosives). Watches can detonate, too. To authorities, this looked like a dry run for a terror attack. Apparently, they were wrong. But do you blame them?
If nothing else, the past nine years have taught us we need to learn the delicate dance between freedom and safety. We've tried the Patriot Act two-step and, yes, the profiling tango, plus a lot of dips and twirls in between. But the steps are as hard to get as the beat. Nine years later, all we still know is we need to get it right before someone else gets hurt.