“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.
Newly 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 A. Adelman is the author of Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in America’s Global War on Terror (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).