Have you ever kicked a cat?
I don't mean this literally. You and I are obviously too high-minded to take our pent-up frustrations out on one of our furry friends – no matter how many times she pees in the bedroom closet.
By kicking the cat I'm talking about a kind of transference, where a single incident or person stands in for a cluster of unresolved feelings that build up over time. Indignities are piled upon insults until... bang!
Needless to say, kicking the cat doesn't actually solve anything. The problems that prompt this nastiness continue to hang around. The bedroom closet still stinks.
Americans have been kicking the cat with unusual vigor over the past couple of weeks. The latest objects of our disaffection have been stepped-up airport security measures and the continued dumping of government documents by WikiLeaks.
Anyone who watches television or reads the news began being bombarded by stories about intrusive passenger searches at airports about a week before the Thanksgiving holiday. People who planned on flying were told by a hyperventilating press to look forward to either a thorough pat-down of their erogenous zones, or a radioactive body scan intended to serve as a kind of virtual strip search. On the one hand, there were stories about grandmas being felt up and, on the other, the risks associated with having one's nude portrait flashed across the Internet.
Long delays at airport security stations were promised.
In fact, many people who traveled over the holiday, myself included, were not subjected to either form of search. Others, like my wife, were scanned because of what seemed to be the dubious luck of the draw. Lines were no better or worse than on other occasions. When asked, many travelers shrugged and said that if the searches made them safer, so be it.
Still, the new, more rigorous measures rankled. That's because they added yet another layer of degradation to the soul-crushing ordeal that's been made of airline travel.
It used to be that going to the airport, taking a flight to some faraway place, was a glamorous experience. People made an effort to look their best when they got on a plane, and the airlines made customer service a major selling point.
But airports today tend to be over-crowded, tense and unpredictable places, where long waits and physical discomfort are an accepted part of the deal. As far as customer service is concerned – forget about it. It often seems that every encounter and exchange that takes place in an airport or on a plane is designed to remind you of just how powerless buying that ticket has made you.
I am happy to add here that Indianapolis' airport actually goes out of its way to mitigate what in many other cities amounts to a hazing experience. But even here you still have to deal with the airlines' gouging business practices – like extra charges for checked luggage – not to mention the inevitable fallout that results when so many fellow passengers feel stressed-out, defensive and hyper-aggressive.
Given all this, the pat-downs and scans were like a cat that practically begged for a kicking.
Something similar has happened in the case of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks and its rather Eurotrashy (albeit Australian) founder, Julian Assange, is dedicated to publishing documents on the Internet that various entities, from businesses to governments, would rather keep under wraps. Since last April, WikiLeaks has published hundreds of thousands of classified documents, relating to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It published over 250,000 diplomatic cables involving the U.S. State Department on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
This has created an uproar. Our government is trying to see if it can bring charges against Assange and WikiLeaks for violating its secrecy. Meanwhile, the Swedes want Assange to submit to questioning regarding alleged sex offenses – a not unusual way, it should be noted, of trying to discredit messengers who discomfit the powerful.
But the more the government complains about WikiLeaks, the more WikiLeaks appears to be a cat handy for kicking. Although the release of the documents has been embarrassing for the State Department, little has been revealed that wasn't already known or, at least, surmised.
What's really at play here is that individual whistle-blowers in the military and diplomatic ranks are finally coming forward to help shed light on what has been an extraordinarily secretive period in U.S. history, during which the country has been embroiled in long-running and debilitating wars, with scant public support.
Many who thought the Obama Administration would bring greater transparency to government dealings have been frustrated by its continuation of what many consider unnecessarily secretive protocols, not to mention its unwillingness to investigate actions by the Bush Administration that many observers believe could be defined as war crimes.
Then, like a cat nonchalantly stepping out from the bedroom closet, comes WikiLeaks. That the news it brings does little more than reinforce our cynicism doesn't make people want to kick it any less.