Terminal Insecurity


Every day, close to 2 million passengers are screened, sorted and processed in US airports. According to the Airports Council International, annual global figures for 2006 continued to increase, despite the difficulties and inconveniences associated with post-9/11 security measures:

4.4 billion passengers used the world’s airports
85 million tonnes of cargo shipped through airports
74 million aircraft movements
$US38 billion spent by the world’s airports on development
4.5 million people employed at airports globally

Many of these resources are devoted to preventing harm to aircraft, passengers, and crew by placing special emphasis on the potential for insecurities in the design and management of air terminals. In this way the global nature of the War on Terror is embedded in the porous architecture of the airport, where the automation of security at these weak points creates suspects of us all. Suspicion is everywhere enacted in the long queues that wind their way past new machines and practices of inspection.

The right to fly now requires a willingness to demonstrate one’s innocence before a labyrinth of machines, screenings and modern rites-of-passage that monitor, confirm and deny our global identities.
During 2006 the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] screened

708,400,522 passengers
[Average wait time 3.79 mins; average peak wait time 11.76 mins]

535,020,271 individual pieces of checked luggage

13,709,211 prohibited items at security checkpoints
[11,616,249 lighters and 1,607,100 knives.]

What does it mean to be a suspect in this network, and how is suspicion organised into spatial forms and technological practice? The primary threat of devastating terrorist activity comes in the shape of camouflaged nodes or cells that may operate undetected within the global network itself. Unseen terrorists are conceived of as using global infrastructures of information to communicate and plan deadly attacks. Appearances are deceiving. An everyday object (a parked car, a bottle of water, an iPod, or a bag of trash) may not be what it seems.

Hence the official response it takes a network to fight this network, which is to say that we cannot manage this threat without the aid of information technologies designed to detect all manner of irregularities and suspicious activity. The new screening technologies designed and implemented under this rubric of risk management and increasing safety for passengers and workers highlight our insecurities in order to guarantee increased layers of protection.
This layered approach is a deliberate strategy to further scrutinise passengers and things for potential breach or threat. Layers of information gathered before flights are added to physical, visual and behavioral inspections of the multitudes who proceed through the terminal to the air. Through the daily use of inventions such as the Threat Image Projection (TIP) software program, security officers are routinely tested on their ability to detect weapons and explosives by x-ray. Other programs such as Secure Flight observe behaviors and activities in the airport environment, checking every passenger manifest against terror watch lists. The implementation of these stringent screening technologies is touted as one of the largest civilian undertakings of all time.
Thanks to this unprecedented international cooperation with 67 countries, a great majority of the world’s air travelers are under a common set of security rules for the first time.

Central to all such global programs is the impossible dilemma of enforcing security without compromising privacy: the ultimate aim of total surveillance society. In the end it seems to be all about us, the viewing subjects who watch thousands of screenings around us. The spectacle of guilt observed. The cool mechanical objectivity of information. No one is beyond suspicion or beyond the scope of the layered network of information and its inescapable sequence of checkpoints, thresholds and bodily checks. We are faced with the grand posture of transparency, hiding beneath the obscene underbelly of Code Orange and Red Alerts.

Publoished in “Terminal Insecurity” in Andrew R. Thomas (ed), Aviation Security Management, Praeger Security International, Connecticut, 2008, pp 187-194.