"If you're wearing a belt, I highly recommend that you remove it!" a man in uniform shouted over the heads of the civilians standing obediently in front of him.

"That's rich," a man in the crowd muttered to his wife. "He says 'recommend,' but he means 'do it.' "

"Folks, I'm telling you," shouted a different uniformed officer. "You've got to empty your pockets!"

The scene might have been the intake facility for a low-security prison, or maybe a police station where officers were trying to process a mass of political agitators brought in all at once.

The shouting seemed routine; not unfriendly, exactly, but it was delivered in tones that left no doubt that the civilians had better do what they were told and look sharp about it.

It was not a jail, of course, but an airport in the United States. This one happened to be in the Midwest, and early-morning snowflakes were swirling prettily outside the big windows, as if the travelers and their overseers were enclosed in a giant snow globe.

A slightly desperate male voice came over the loudspeaker. "Can I have your attention in the terminal! If you just came through TSA security and you left your backpack behind, please return and claim it! Nemo is getting lonely!"

It must have been a kid's backpack. A moment later, an automated voice said: "Attention passengers. Please remove all items from your pockets. This includes all paper items, plastic items, pens and wallets."

In case the corralled travelers weren't paying attention, one of the guys in uniform yelled: "Everything out! Everything! Papers, pens, all currency!"

"It's strange," murmured a woman in line, "they have only two lines open."

"Remember, they had cutbacks," her husband said with a hint of mockery. "Oh, it's going to get bad later if that's the game they're playing."

"Attention all passengers! I have a black baseball cap at security! A black baseball cap! I also have a backpack with Nemo inside! Please return and claim it!"

No sooner had he stopped talking than the smooth-toned robot was back. "Please dispose of all liquids of more than three ounces," he said in his understanding, sing-song way.

"Boarding passes?" A large, jolly woman wearing blue latex gloves was moving down the line of passengers. She held out her hand to an elderly couple and looked for a moment at the names on their documents.

"Norman?" she said. The man nodded.

"And ... Pam?" Pam nodded, and the TSA woman moved on.

It is a very tired metaphor, but there is nothing like traveling in this country to bring to mind the old saying about the frog and hot water. If you drop a frog into a pot of hot water, he'll leap out again. But if you put him into cool water and heat it up slowly, he'll boil to death rather than try to escape. I've never had the heart to try the experiment, but you don't need to boil any amphibians to see that people will come to accept indignities delivered gradually that they never would tolerate if the outrages happened all at once.

There was a time, for instance, when a younger person wouldn't have dreamt of addressing strangers by their first names. The older couple had grown up in that time, and now here they were, gray-haired and stiff-jointed, emptying their pockets while jolly women called them Norman and Pam.

Meanwhile, official voices were constantly shouting: "Laptops out of their bags!" and "If you have just gone through TSA security and you are missing a bracelet, please return and claim it!"

In the hubbub and the hurry to get their shoes on and off, to take their belts off and on, to retrieve their coats and carry-ons and all the bits and pieces they had had in their pockets, it seemed that many people had left something valuable behind: that backpack, some paperwork, the bracelet, a ladies' wristwatch, even a laptop.

In fact, everyone had left something precious behind: It was the way we used to travel; it was the way we used to be.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.