A Tony Russell "Principalities and Powers" column from July 24, 2006


"We'd better stop at the store," said Patty. "We're about out of potatoes, and Kevin wanted potato soup for supper."

"Okay," I said. "No problem. We're going right by Wall-Market."

"Do you have your driver's license with you?" she worried.

"Sure," I said. "It's in my billfold, like it always is."

"Do you have your official notarized copy of your birth certificate, your social security card, and a utility bill with our current mailing address on it?" she fussed. "You know they won't let you shop without them."

"Got it all," I said. "What about you?"

She was rummaging through her purse. "Darn it, I can't seem to find my birth certificate," she said.

"I know I had it Friday, because I had to show it when I went for my hair appointment. And I had it when I went to the post office afterwards, because the security guard who checked it when I entered was Rhonda Wilford. You remember Rhonda; she was prom queen the year after I was. We got to talking about how the gowns have changed, and then she picked up a piece of trash and wadded it all up and threw it in a wastebasket, and I remember thinking when she bent over that she sure wouldn't fit into her gown anymore. Wastebasket! Ohmigosh! I'll bet she threw my birth certificate away!" She let out a shriek.

"Relax, Patty," I said. "What's the big deal? You can just get another one."

"Oh sure," she said. "You talk as if it's nothing. Remember when I lost my social security card, and they wanted to see my driver's license and my birth certificate and my social security card before they'd issue another one? And I said, 'If I could show you my social security card, I wouldn't be asking you for another one.'"

"That was a real headache, wasn't it?" I said. "You thought they'd laugh and see how absurd it was, but you ended up having to get affidavits from our bank and your boss swearing that you'd actually shown them your social security card when you opened your account and when you were hired."

"Right," she said grimly. "Then the bank froze our checking and savings accounts until I could produce my new card."

"And your company suspended you without pay until your new card came," I recalled.

"I don't know what the big deal was about our bank account," she complained. "It turns out the government has copies of all our transactions anyway."

"Patty!" I said. "You're not supposed to know that!"

"Then it took almost six weeks for the new card to come," she went on, ignoring me. "If my parents hadn't loaned us enough money to make our house and car payments, I don't know how we would have made it."

"Reminds me of when the library said you had an overdue book, and you claimed you'd returned it," I joked.

"That wasn't funny, Ace. I was positive I'd returned that copy of American Dynasty. I told them if they'd just check the National Security Agency records, they'd find I'd returned it the day before it was due."

"Patty," I said. "You're not supposed to know the NSA monitors what library materials you check out!"

"Well what's the difference, Ace?" she snapped. "I already told my cousin Louise in an e-mail that I was reading it, and of course they screen everybody's e-mail."

"Patty!" I said, exasperated, "You're not supposed to know the government reads your e-mail."

"They already know I know," she said, "because I mentioned it in a phone call to my brother Dave when he called from Jerusalem."

"Patty!" I said. "You're not supposed to know the government is eavesdropping on people's phone calls!"

"Ace," she said, "do you ever wonder if all of this is really necessary?"

"Of course it's necessary," I said. "Otherwise, terrorists or illegal immigrants might shop at Wall-Market or get their hair done or pay their bills."

"All the same," said Patty, "there's something … I don't know, something crummy about it. There are all the long lines and the waits and the metal detectors and the security guards. To tell the truth, none of it makes me feel any safer. It just makes me feel anxious. Like I'm being watched all the time. It makes me feel as if somebody has his eye on me, has me under control."

"Well, isn't that a good thing?" I asked. "If you feel that way, and you're innocent, think how terrorists must feel."

"I was thinking more of how blacks must have felt in South Africa when they had to carry those passbooks with them everywhere. We all thought that was so despicable—what whites were doing to them. And now we're doing so much worse to ourselves. We've become our own second class citizens. Everybody's a 'kaffir' now."

© Tony Russell, 2006

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