Month: March 2017

Airports and the New Politics of National Belonging in the Age of the Travel Ban

“By participating in this key, if seemingly unremarkable, ritual of contemporary American militarism, we also verify our fitness for citizenship. We prove that we belong.”

Following the September 11 attacks, U.S. airports became immeasurably more complicated— politically, practically, and symbolically. Once relatively unremarkable waypoints, distinguished primarily by their forms of convenience or lack thereof, airports acquired a range of functions and meanings. In my book, Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in America’s Global War on Terror (UMass Press, 2014), I situate airports within the broader landscape of militarized visual culture. The airport is, after all, the place where the story of the Global War on Terror began the moment the hijackers moved seamlessly through security and headed toward their flights.

9781625340702Newly positioned as front lines in the War on Terror, airports became battlegrounds for contestations over the meanings of citizenship, mobility, freedom, and privacy, all articulated against a matrix of security. In the process, security became a function of visibility, as screening procedures were refined and devised to maximize the exposure of travelers passing through. Travelers were required to acculturate themselves to longer security lines, restrictions on what they could pack, and more intimate and invasive screening procedures. The controversy these new measures engendered often framed them as examples of state overreach (embodied in the probing hands of TSA screeners) and so rested on the notion that U.S. citizens deserved more respectful treatment.

Over time, these rituals have become more normalized; removing our shoes, sandwich-bagging our toiletries, waiting with our arms stretched overhead while the millimeter wave machine scans for hidden explosives are, for most travelers, predictable inconveniences. Beyond the price of the ticket, the cost of air travel now includes the willingness to comply with these routines.  Eligible travelers can apply for TSA Pre✓®; the $85 fee for this program buys successful applicants out of these hassles, but also verifies their harmlessness for five years at a time.  When we navigate these security procedures  successfully, we are rewarded with the chance to go somewhere else, and the sense of freedom that might entail. But not only. In the process, by participating in this key, if seemingly unremarkable, ritual of contemporary American militarism, we also verify our fitness for citizenship. We prove that we belong.

More recently, however, the politics of national belonging have taken a different shape at American airports. Within minutes of Trump’s signing the first executive order on immigration (a 90-day ban on entry for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and a 120-day suspension of entry by any refugee), airports became impassable checkpoints for travelers from these countries. For those with visas or Green Cards who were caught in the immediate and chaotic rollout of the ban, airports became sites of detention and confinement. For those awaiting the arrival of loved ones who were barred from boarding their planes in other countries or detained upon arrival here, airports became sites of individual grief. In the book, I describe how the placelessness of airports links them to territorially ambiguous locations like Guantánamo Bay or black sites; as they were temporarily refashioned as detention centers, this similarity was starkly borne out.

Yet American airports also drew scores of people who were not directly affected by the travel ban, rapidly and dramatically becoming sites of protest and counter-protest. Demonstrators opposed to the travel ban characterized it as antithetical to American values; those who supported it characterized the ban as totally coherent with them. Both positions were predicated on a particular understanding of national identity and citizenship. And both recognized the airport as a place where such claims could, and should, be made. There is a practical logic to this decision, insofar as airports were the locations at which the consequences of the travel ban played out most visibly. But in the long aftermath of September 11, an airport is never just an airport. Whether one believes that the travel ban will have a negative, positive, or negligible impact on the security of the nation-state (there is no real evidence that it will make the U.S. safer), the debate is haunted on all sides by the specter of terrorism. And so the airport once again became the place where Americans attempted to exorcise it.

Rebecca_Adelman-2981-200x300Rebecca A. Adelman is the author of Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in America’s Global War on Terror (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

Will Nativism and Racism Rear Their Ugly Heads Again in Boston?

On the evening of January 27, more than a thousand people flooded Terminal E at Logan Airport to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban against immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Two days later, thousands more packed Copley Plaza to raise their voices against the ban, and just last week, hundreds gathered in silence with linked arms around the Roxbury mosque in an interfaith Chain of Peace to express solidarity with the local Muslim community. While Massachusetts Muslims continue to face a barrage of hostility and abuse fueled by Trump’s anti-Muslim invective and policies, the strong public push back to his policies offers some reassurance that immigrants and refugees are not alone and will not be abandoned to reactionary forces and policies as they have been in the past.

9781625341464The city of Boston and the commonwealth as a whole have long been recognized as immigrant- and refugee-friendly places. As chronicled in my book, The New Bostonians, and the Global Boston website that has grown out of it, Boston has welcomed large-scale migrations of newcomers since the Great Famine sent tens of thousands of destitute Irish to our ports in the 1840s. Although there were no official refugee policies prior to World War II, Massachusetts repeatedly became a refuge for the persecuted and the vulnerable—Eastern European Jews fleeing Tsarist repression, survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915–16, and periodic streams of new arrivals fleeing epidemics and earthquakes in Italy and Portugal.

After World War II, religious-affiliated groups in Boston such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Catholic Charities resettled Holocaust survivors and displaced persons from across Europe as well as Cold War–era refugees from Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Southeast Asia. Since the 1980s, violence, repression and wars across the world—many in which the U.S. was involved—have brought thousands to Massachusetts from places such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia.

These common experiences of repression and exile have often fostered sympathy and solidarity with refugees and immigrants among the region’s native-born. But we should not assume that the vocal support we’ve seen recently will be sustained. History also offers numerous examples of Massachusetts residents leading the fight against immigration—from the Know Nothing Party’s attack on Irish immigrants in the 1850s, to the Brahmin-led Immigration Restriction League’s racialized campaign to curtail immigration in the early twentieth century, to the widespread acts of assault, arson, and murder of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in greater Boston during the 1980s. These events remind us that nativism and racism are an ugly and persistent current in our history. They flare up when economic and social resentments grow and politicians exploit those resentments to consolidate their power.

marilynn-johnsonMarilynn S. Johnson is author of The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed the Metro Area since the 1960s.