I love my knife, a small enough folder to be legal in most states, vicious enough to be used in self-defense, practical enough to be used for everyday cutting tasks, and strong enough to last forever. It goes with me most places and that was the problem. My daughter and I had just finished an east coast college tour and we were returning home from Washington Dulles airport. With luggage checked I had just removed my shoes to go through security when I realized that my folder was still clipped inside my trouser pocket. I immediately informed the TSA minion and asked whether there was a mailing service at the airport so I could send the knife home. “No mailing service”, he replied, smiling appreciatively at the knife. “Your only choices are to give it to me or to throw it away in the garbage can.” Putting my shoes back on, I backed guiltily out of the security line amid curious glances.
No way that TSA Nazi was going to get my knife, I thought. It would be better to give it to a stranger…or would it? I imagined approaching any one of the hundreds of people I could see moving about the airport. Given the current security situation would any of them appreciate being offered a deadly weapon at an airport, even if was free and valuable? I imagined being arraigned in court on anti-terrorism charges and watching myself on surveillance videos, bearing down on complete strangers with a knife in my hand. No, this wasn’t going to work. I held the folded knife over the top of the garbage can with moistening eyes. There was no alternative, or was there? All my life I’ve believed in the virtues of civil society, individuals and organizations working independently of the government. Leave people alone to voluntarily work out solutions to their problems and in most cases they will come up with more effective ones than those imposed by top-down governments.
I exited the airport and approached a silver-haired driver of an SUV who had just dropped off a young couple. “Hello”, I said explaining the situation as succinctly as I could. “If you could just mail the knife to this address I would be very grateful. Here’s forty dollars to cover the postage costs,” I said, trying to look as trustworthy as possible. “I’ll mail the knife for you”, he replied “but I’m not going to accept any money”. “But I want to make sure you’re not out-of-pocket”, I insisted. “No, I won’t take any money from you but I will promise to return your knife”, the stranger said in a tone that did not invite further discussion. I handed over the knife, thanked him once again and we both shook hands. When I was reunited again with my daughter inside the airport, I remarked that I was one hundred percent confident that the stranger would do as he promised. Two days later, I received a small professionally packed parcel containing my knife swaddled in a mile of bubble wrap. There was a business return address but no name. I called the business and left an innocuous thank you message in the general mailbox. Needless to say, my faith in civil society is as strong as ever.
“Manners are the basic building blocks of civil society.” Alexander McCall Smith