The Secure Security Guy

November 16 2002

A friend called and said, "Let's go to Mexico!" My passport had expired, so I had to go to the passport office in Los Angeles, at the Federal Building in Westwood. For my entire life, until fifteen years ago, I traveled to Canada and Mexico with just my California Driver's License as i.d. But this is a new world, so I had to get my passport renewed.

I got a chance to witness an interesting guy in action. He was the security guard for the inside of the Federal Building, you had to walk right by him to enter the passport office. He looked each person in the eye and greeted them individually with a sincere attitude of "how can I help you? What do you need today?" and he was laughing and joking with people as they came in. He was relaxed in the way that people in Southern California specialize in – although I have seen the same humor and respect emanating from security people, customs officers, and border guards everywhere.

He paid attention to every person that walked through the door, and helped him or her to get into the right line. With people who did not speak English, he would politely signal that he would like to look at their papers, and then he would graciously walk them right to the proper window. There were many people who looked as if they were from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. I had about half an hour to wait, so I watched him and admired the informal mastery with which he attended to the room.

Most of the people in the Passport office of the Federal building that day were from other countries, they weren't just preparing for a trip. People were tending to their papers out of concern with the heightened security in the United States. There were maybe a hundred and fifty people inside a large room, in eight or ten lines.

At the same time that he was being loose and kind of dancing around, the guard was aware of virtually everyone in the room. His eyes casually scanned the room continually, and if he caught anyone's eye, he would nod, as if checking to see if everything was OK with you and are you being helped.

He was so at ease, that if anything had been out of place, he would have noticed. He would have visually seen an incongruity, heard something false, felt a tingle on his skin or in his belly. He had clear radar screens. Although he was armed, he was as relaxed as if he were having buddies over for beer in his apartment. He did not waste one erg of energy in false vigilance, pointlessly being suspicious of people. He was embodying what real security is, which is to be both relaxed and alert. With this guy, there would be very few false alarms. And false alarms degrade the efficiency of any organization or group of people.

The whole staff there was relaxed, which is unusual. There must be a very good manager there, to create an atmosphere in which the employees can function well. It was as if all the employees had a meeting that morning and said to each other, "Today and this week are going to be intense, lots of people, so we have to be on our game."

This security guard was a living example of what Gavin de Becker talks about in his excellent book,
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. De Becker is a security consultant, an expert in assessing when situations are dangerous. Police and federal agencies across the country consult with him on cases. Although he writes about situations such as stalking and domestic violence, de Becker emphasises the need to trust your own instincts and to learn to read your survival signals. One key to this is staying relaxed as much as possible, so that when you do get a fear signal, it is accurate and useful. If you often scare yourself with fantasies that have nothing to do with what is going on in your immediate environment, then your survival signals may be drowned out by inner noise.

When I say, "Move around your world in a relaxed state, it's practical and safe," people sometimes say, "Yeah, right, you are a meditation teacher, fine for you to say." When de Becker says the same thing, it has a different and additional meaning, because he actually works in the field of violence prevention.

For years, I have recommended that everyone who experiences fear on a daily basis read de Becker. Now Gavin has a new book out,
Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism.

This shows how useful meditation can be for security forces. Relaxed vigilance is much more practical than strained alertness, which is tiring and leads to mistakes.