The Time Thieves

By:  Russ Walden, 11/08/01

Think about the ten smartest and most productive people whom you know or even know of – the people whose long busy days invariably leave the world a little bit better than it was when their days began.  These are people who make things or invent things, or people who change the lives of other people, directly or indirectly.  These are people who are often pushing at the envelope of the possible to find new and better ways for us to live our lives.   They use their time to make our time more interesting or productive.

These people, and their counterparts, have been with us since the beginning of human history.  They discovered fire and electricity, invented interplanetary vehicles and antibiotics -- always giving more to mankind than it was possible for mankind to give back.

Now, expand your list from ten to one hundred – hard to come up with the names, isn’t it?  Forget the names; just think about the concept of those people who every day do something to make the world better.  Now, expand the list again – to one thousand, to one hundred thousand, to one million.  Just in our country alone, that is less than one percent of the population. 

Those people, all one million of them, are out there somewhere every day, making our world better.  Because of them, we will one day cure cancer, take leisure trips to the moon, wear personal anti-gravity devices and live longer, more productive and more enjoyable lives.

Suppose that the gods granted you infinite power to make a gift to those people – a gift which would be of immense value to them and, simultaneously, of immense value to all mankind.  What could you give them that they do not already have or that they need more of?   What is the one gift that would be of great value to them, but of even greater value to society?  The answer is simple:  more time.

Give them more time to do the things they do so well, and the results of their efforts will flow back into society.  Conversely, the single most valuable thing they have that we could steal from them is their time.  If we do that, however, we are like the vandals who destroy art works or bash mailboxes – we steal value which we cannot, ourselves, use.   If I steal an hour from a research physicist, I cannot use it to expand my day; I can only diminish his day.

That is exactly what we are doing now all across America .  In the next year, six thousand people will die because we stole time from the people who could have prevented their deaths.  Another six thousand will live another day or another year in pain or disability because we stole time from the people who could have found the ways to make their lives better. 

A child will die because the scientist who would have discovered a cure was standing in line to have his identification examined by someone who could barely read it.  An old man will live his days limited by his medical condition because the technician who would have run the tests on the new series processor chips was standing in line waiting for his portable computer to be examined by someone not capable even of understanding how it functions.  Six thousand people will die or live inadequate lives because the people who would have contributed to their betterment were standing in lines, missing connections and wasting the most valuable resource on earth – their time.

These were my thoughts as I began my day making my first air trip since September 11th, 2001 .  On that awful day, the terrorists killed approximately three thousand people.  Marching forward from that day, we will kill, indirectly of course, many, many more, and deny improved lives to countless thousands or millions.  We are now the time thieves.

I thought of these things as I stood in line to check a bag that I rarely ever checked before because I always traveled carry-on.  Can’t do that anymore – not because I’m carrying more stuff, just can’t take simple things like my little computer tool kit on board the airplanes anymore.  These were some of my thoughts as I was asked, for the first time today, to show my identification.

I thought of these things as I stood in line again, this time to show my identification and my ticket to yet another person who would grant me the simple privilege of submitting myself and my carry-on bag to electronic examination.  I had even more time as I stood in that line while a grizzled veteran tried, in vain, to explain to a security person whose IQ likely did not exceed room temperature that he had a steel plate in his leg, left over from his vacation in Viet Nam thirty years ago.

While I was standing in line to show my identification for the third time, this time to a person who would grant me access to the aircraft waiting to whisk me off to San Francisco , I thought of these things.  Standing in these lines, I listened to the conversations around me – busy people doing productive things, but not now.  Now they are just standing in line for the time thieves.

I have traveled regularly for most of my business career.  Over the years I have watched the progression of the time thieves as they stole small increments of my time and the time of those million others like me whose jobs and lives involve travel.  I watched as the increments of theft grew larger.  In whimsical nostalgia, I look back to the late sixties when I was working on “moon stuff.”  A panicked call from our customer or a key supplier would take me away at a moment’s notice.  When such a call came, usually from somewhere around Los Angeles , I would head for the airport – knowing that there was a flight every hour to LA.

If I was close to the flight time, I would go directly to the gate and ask the gate agent if there was a vacant seat.  The reply was usually, “Yeah, but you’ve got to hurry.  Go get on the plane.”  Yep; that’s what I said – just go get on the plane, like boarding a bus.  On board I would find a vacant seat, then, after takeoff, the flight attendant would sell me a ticket to legitimize my presence.   Those days are gone forever – taken away by the time thieves.

Now, somewhere over Texas , I take time to reflect on my morning.  My time tested travel routines were unilaterally altered.  I spent almost two hours longer at the airport than in previous times for the same flight.   I will waste more time at the other end of my flight waiting for a small bag whose innocent contents precluded me from carrying it on board. 

I chuckled as I unrolled my napkin containing the “silverware” that accompanied my meal – metal spoon, metal forks, and a plastic knife.  I had ordered the steak for lunch, and I can assure the reader that any plastic knife capable of cutting an airline steak is also capable of cutting the flight attendant’s throat.   So, what we have is another symbolic surrender to the time thieves.

What is particularly grating and galling to me is knowing that if everything that I endured this morning had been done on September 11th, the outcome would have been the same and three thousand people would have died.  While the stealers of time and freedom practice their evil craft, we are not made more safe, just more inconvenienced and less free.   There is one single thing that would have averted most of the loss of life on September 11th, and it was accomplished in one instance.  That one thing is for the passengers of those planes simply to say “No” to the hijackers.   Never again will a few would-be hijackers intimidate a hundred passengers into sheep-like compliance.  That is changed forever – and it took no passage of laws to do it.

Why, then, do we so meekly submit to these incursions into our freedoms and the theft of our time?  Perhaps because it is all so impersonal and, after all, it makes people feel more safe.  But, in a world that keeps turning round and round, eventually, perhaps even in a circuitous fashion, it will become personal to each of us.  Perhaps it will be I whose life is cut short by a disease not cured because the scientist spent so much time standing in line that he had less available to practice his craft.  Perhaps it will be your child, or grandchild, whose life will be cut short because the technician who would have finished testing the chips that would have made a life-saving device possible in time, could not complete the testing soon enough because he was once again waiting in line to show his identification to someone.

When those things happen, they will be intensely personal to us, but will we recognize their connections?  Will we then realize and acknowledge that we, ourselves, were complicit in these sad events simply because of our meek surrender to the time thieves?

Probably not.

Russ Walden, 11/08/01