When airports are excused from democratic and civil norms, they take on many of the characteristics of a police state. With dystopian aesthetics and ostentatious security checks, the airport provides a space for us to examine our political fears, but may also pose a threat to civil liberty beyond its walls.
Early on Monday morning the partner of a Guardian journalist was stopped by officers and questioned for nine hours. He was held under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows officers to stop, search, question, and detain individuals, without having any reasonable suspicion of a need to do so. Officers can also confiscate property for up to seven days, and keep any data they extract from digital devices for longer.
This law allows the arbitrary application of police pressure. If it was available to law enforcement everywhere in Britain, the country would have one of the key ingredients for a police state. But the law only applies at airports, ports, border areas, and international train stations. All of these transit zones, especially airports, are like mini real-life dystopias, microcosms of totalitarian rule. The authorities indulge in security theatre, and the masses comply. Airports are an ever-present reminder that humans are just as vulnerable to the lure of extreme rule now as they were in the 1930s.
The Crystal Airport
Arriving at the airport, the traveller usually finds themselves standing in a space-age, monumentalist cavern, clinging to their identity papers nervously. From the Crystal Palace to Zamyatin’s glassy OneState, large transparent buildings have often been used as a metaphor for state and societal oppression, the individual feels small in the gargantuan surroundings, never out of sight of others. Airport architecture boasts of the technological and financial prowess of the state, unhindered by the concerns of local residents (as there are none), and explicitly serving as a piece of political pageantry for new arrivals in the country. In purely visual terms, I love the aesthetics of the airport. What I don’t love is the rest of the package. Above the thousands of stressed travellers the airport imposes blanket surveillance, appeals to report suspicious behaviour, posters warning of bomb threats, and an atmosphere of absolute mistrust and state-sanctioned fear.
The result is that we see each other in a different light. Subjected to years of paranoid media messaging and the airport’s physical security apparatus, passengers buy into the oppressive security culture. There is little solidarity in the airport, and many are actively suspicious of fellow travellers. Watch how impatient people get when someone is taking a long time at passport check or having a bag rescanned. Some maintain a sense of decency for fellow travellers but are still affected, instinctively feeling less entitled to assert their own human rights. The few who do veer from the norm, either because they do not understand the rules or because they reject the rules, elicit little tolerance or sympathy from their peers, the more frequent reaction is a cold stare or an impatient sigh.
Why should anyone care for the rule breakers you may ask. Because like in any totalitarian space, the rules are arbitrary and enforced to the point of absurdity. Watch as the empty water bottles and knitting needles are confiscated and thrown in the bin, while far more credible threats are allowed pass through in hand luggage. Bruce Schneier calls this “security theatre,” measures which make people feel more secure while doing little to actually improve their security.
The security staff have total authority, but little room for pragmatism, usually sticking strictly to the bureaucratically mandated rules. Sometimes they overstep them, such as the legally unsanctioned requests to take shoes off before passing through a scanner. As anthropologist Marc Auge puts it, visitors to “supermodern non-places” such as airports do not interact with individuals, but rather with “moral entities” and institutions, in this case the police and the airline. Any off-colour humour is met with an absurd seriousness.
Security theatre permeates the airplane itself. Just as passengers are being told to switch off their electronic devices, the pilots fire up their iPads. The possibility of electronic interference is increasingly unlikely in modern aeroplanes, but the passenger device ban remains.
That airports are undemocratic is not necessarily a problem, there are very good reasons to maintain rigour in the aeronautics industry, and when those standards slip the results can be tragic. But security theatre risks being such an alienating experience that it makes us less secure. When combined with racial profiling, language barriers, different cultural norms, and the segmentation of passport queues into trusted and untrusted nationalities, an airport security check can be a humiliating experience. The grim truth is that if you treat people like they are planning to commit a massacre, you may make them more likely to want to do so.
Airport security culture is extremely resilient, no policymaker wants to loosen the screws and risk being blamed for a future attack. It may even be “antifragile,” thriving on volatility and disorder. With every attempted transport attack, the airport security apparatus gets rewarded with more legal powers, funding, and status. Such antifragility should not be mistaken for omnipotence. After years of criticism, the Transport Security Authority in America recently removed staff access to the raw imagery from full body scanners, popularly known as “nude scanners.” It was only a partial success, but it showed that the airport is not totally immune to reasoned debate from outside its walls.
Airport culture must be kept in the airport, but there is ample evidence that it seeps out into the wider world. British train stations have regular terrorism announcements and insidious “See Something, Say Something” posters. The London Underground has its own elements of dystopia, with escalators that bring you past twenty screens all airing the same advert, everyone reading the same newspaper, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Most worryingly, the United States reportedly has a 100-mile wide “Constitution Free Zone” on all its borders, an area home to 2 out of 3 Americans, where US constitutional rights can be overruled by security officials.
We are as susceptible to extreme control structure as we’ve ever been, and we should resist that extreme control as we have always done. As the Spanish liberal MEP Ignasi Guardans put it:
Passengers should know that airports are not an exception to democracy. They have the same fundamental rights in front of an airport police officer that they have when they are in the middle of the street, which means they have to protest any attitude that is not covered by the law; only what has a specific legal coverage can be required from you. Unfortunately, when people travel they are under stress and the only thing they want to do is to take the flight, and they are prepared to waive rights that normally they would not. Citizens should be able to contest; maybe take a photograph, or be able to identify any security officer by the number of the badge.