I have a family photograph showing myself, age 4, my sister and my mother getting ready to board an airplane in 1963. Mom was dressed to the nines with a long white coat, gloves and an elegant hat. She could just as easily have been going to church or to a formal dinner.
Despite a fairly healthy imagination, no matter how hard I try I cannot conjure what would happen if a uniformed officer had approached her at the airport and given her the choice of either standing in a machine allowing him to view her without those clothes on or submitting to a thorough pat-down without regard to modesty or propriety.
Recent opinion polls show most Americans don't mind the body scanning machines that give Transportation Safety Administration agents a clear view of their anatomies. Support is wavering, however, due to recent publicity. (An Angus Reid survey found 61 percent in support, down 20 points from January.)
But a Washington Post-ABC News poll found half the people it surveyed felt the full-body pat-down of people who refuse the machines, as if they were arrested drug dealers, is unjustified.
At least now we know where the lines of propriety have moved over the last 50 or so years.
That old snapshot may tell us something about all that. Flying was an event in 1963, whereas today it is a chore, something we endure to get from here to there quickly. But that doesn't fully explain the way we were dressed back then. Simply put, people felt a duty to be presentable when they were in public.
Today's airports are filled with passengers in shorts, t-shirts, soiled baseball caps or worse. We may brush this off by saying we prefer to be comfortable when we travel, but, consciously or not, we are making a statement.
As exotic dancers are fond of arguing at the Supreme Court, the way a person dresses, or doesn't dress, is a form of speech. It conveys attitudes about yourself, the task at hand and the people you serve, or whom you expect to be served by. It conveys appropriateness in context.
It's no accident, for example, that the TSA agent beckoning you into the body scanner is dressed in a clean uniform designed to communicate respect and authority. If he or she were in sweatpants or cutoffs, you wouldn't be as likely to submit, and those opinion polls about it all would read differently.
Those same opinion polls say most Americans put up with the scans because they would rather prevent terrorism than protect their own privacy. Here again, a little historical context is in order.
This generation did not invent terror, nor are Americans today struggling with it more than their predecessors a century ago. Today we worry about al-Qaida. Then they worried about anarchists.
On New Year's Eve 1918, terrorists bombed the homes of two judges and a police official in Philadelphia, all in separate sections of the city as a statement of hatred against "soldiers, judges, priests and parasites," according to papers found at one of the homes.
This was just one example of the terrorism of the day. One anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, killed a president of the United States, William McKinley, in 1901. Other terrorists set off a bomb on Wall Street in 1920, killing about 40 people. Bombs were detonated in many Americans cities in those days.
People were alarmed. Legislatures tried to outlaw immigration to keep "debauched and criminal elements away," as a resolution in Texas put it. But no one thought of patting down proper people in public.
Nor, even in 1963, did they think of strip-searching me as a 4-year-old boy, despite the raging Cold War.
Airline security is, of course, important to life in the 21st century. Air travel is tied to commerce, trade and tourism as never before, which is why it is such a target.
But in the furor over the latest methods of dealing with an age-old problem, we ought to examine the last half-century to see our own role in how boundaries have changed.