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Americans have lost a sense of civic unity. After deadly natural disasters and domestic attacks, catastrophe bridged what are revealed to be superficial differences. The same no longer holds true.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Airports are a great place to people-watch. After you check in, pass through security, and purchase an overpriced water bottle, there is ample opportunity to turn your attention away from boarding and into the heads of other people. Become an astute observer, and suddenly you notice the sound of foreign language consuming the air; the wrinkles of the traveler in front of you reflecting rich life experience; the banter of flight attendants bemoaning 30-hour shifts cross-country.

Mute your incessant internal monologue and you assimilate into the culture of an American airport.

The deeper you plunge into this reality, the more recognizable the paradoxes of American principles. At airports, there is a strange blend between individual responsibility and civic sacrifice. Beady-eyed employees at kiosk decks prompt for assistance, but the onus is on the individual to reach the gate on time for boarding or miss the flight. Although most are eager to board a plane quickly, there is ample opportunity to check your personal items for the convenience of others or even voluntarily bump your flight. The tension festers between the responsibility and the obligation to act civically.

If the standard guidance to apply your oxygen mask before helping others underpins the ideal of American individualism, does the opportunity to inconvenience yourself for others reflect American democratic ideals?

These tests pop up in obscure forms. Airline seats have shrunk over the years, making legroom and shoulder space tight. We must choose between spreading our bodies in the interest of our own comfort (after all, we purchased an expensive ticket) or shrinking ourselves to accommodate the passenger next to us.

In the same way we face this decision in plane seats, we struggle with the idea of minimizing our personal liberty for the freedom of the body politic. This conflict was exposed during the pandemic. For coronavirus skeptics, the choice was absurd, the former interest being weighed considerably heavier than the latter.

Entering this mental framework invites thought into the philosophy of government. Classical liberal thinkers like John Locke, influential on the American founding, argue that there is a compelling interest to enter civil society. Without a governmental framework, the operative principle of humans is self-preservation. In the state of nature, we’re quarrelsome and contentious. But in civil society, we are rational and industrious. Indeed, much of the American capitalist structure is the idea that by pursuing your self-interest, you support the interests of others.

What is particularly uncanny about both the airline and coronavirus examples is that Americans have lost a sense of civic unity.

But on an airplane, it may be in your self-interest to accommodate your own wants at the expense of other passengers and staff. American principles appear to be challenged when we are tired and agitated. There’s been an unusual uptick of unruly passengers on flights. Their wants and desires lower the cabin’s air pressure with no regard for those around them. Just as American driving is a civic activity, wherein motorists assume full responsibility for their lives and the lives of others by adhering to road laws, so is civil flying. Cooperation and unity is necessary for everyone to arrive safely and enjoyably at their destination.

What is particularly uncanny about both the airline and coronavirus examples is that Americans have lost a sense of civic unity. After deadly natural disasters and domestic attacks, catastrophe has often bridged our superficial differences. The pandemic seems to have broken that mold. And the privatization of American air travel makes it harder to see those on a plane as fellow citizens or fellow passengers. With a little reflection, we should see how vital that distinction is.

The next time you find yourself at an American airport, I would invite you to discern your surroundings, dig deep, and discover what you owe to others. Would you inconvenience yourself for the greater good? Would you honor your civic or individual identity? Would you allow the turbulence of democracy to shake the foundations of our country? Reflecting on our identities can pave a path towards civic conviction inside and outside of airports.

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A child of Bosnian and Iraqi war refugees and a first-generation college student at Arizona State University Barrett, The Honors College, Sami embraces his diverse academic and multicultural background...