[It should be noted that my intention in writing this essay is not to insinuate that the increase in airport security was meant to be the “be all and end all” to the fight against terrorism. Obviously, that is ridiculous; I’m aware that we did actually go to war. However, a huge emphasis has been placed on its vital importance, and this is the part to which I object because it creates dangerous social issues.]
As a result of the September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the world became quite a bit more paranoid. Immediately, states all over the world began heightening their border security, battening down on airports, all in a desperate attempt to “secure the homeland” – a phrase that, before this time, would have sounded poetic, but not quite so commonplace. In fact, since the attacks of 9/11, the omnipresence of terrorism and the need for “homeland security” has become such a popular theme in contemporary American politics, that it seems the country cares for little else and has lost sight of more important things. Worse, it could be argued that, in attempting to make people feel safer, the increased security and awareness of terrorism has worsened the security crisis, instead rather counter-productively making people feel more frightened. While proponents of strict airline security might say that the evidence of its effectiveness can be seen in how there have been no major terrorist attacks via plane lately, the counterargument is just as clear: while there may have been no major recent terror attacks by air, America is still fighting a “war on terror,” proving that one cannot defeat a concept with stricter regulations. My question is this: How effective has airport security really been when it comes to establishing safety and curbing terrorism? My hypothesis is that the only real benefit of airport security lies in that it is largely a measure to protect ordinary people from themselves, but it ultimately has little impact on the eradication of terrorism.
The reason the attacks of September 11th, 2001 had such a great impact on society – western society, in particular – was because it was the first major act of aggression from a foreign party on American soil since Pearl Harbor during World War II. Most living Americans had no idea what it felt like to no longer feel safe on American soil; it was a shocking dose of the reality others face on a daily basis. So, all of a sudden, Americans became intensely aware of their vulnerability, and decided to react by increasing their border security, believing they could not be hurt if they let no one in. The problem with such an isolationist policy (especially for a country whose ideals, the very “American Dream,” are predicated on popularly-espoused principles like bringing “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” America’s historical policy of welcoming openness that is even inscribed on the Statue of Liberty herself) is that it means sacrificing that which makes America what it is – a nation where anyone can come to become anything.
“What has happened is that terrorism and the attendant “war” have become internalized… The public has chosen, it appears, to wallow in… a false sense of insecurity, and it apparently plans to continue to do so. Accordingly, it is also likely to continue to demand that its leaders pay due deference to its insecurities and to uncritically approve the huge amounts of money shelled out in a quixotic and mostly symbolic effort to assuage those insecurities.”[i]
Thus, in order to preserve both the American ideal and the safety of its citizens, the United States government started passing reactionary laws, enforcing stricter regulations on those who are coming into the country and those who are leaving it.
Generally, the methods have been fairly straightforward. Most air travelers have experienced such joys as the “pat-down,” where a security officer will literally pat a passenger down to check for any suspicious items such as firearms, explosives, wires, knives, etc. One must generally also pass through a metal detector, and remove their shoes, coats, and bags, which will then be passed on a conveyor belt through an x-ray machine and scanned for any other illicit materials a person might be carrying. This is essentially to ensure that average citizens, who are not terrorists and have no nefarious intentions whatsoever, do not accidentally do something thoughtless (like forget a pocket knife on their keychain or something equally ridiculous) which could endanger the lives of their fellow passengers, but it is also to ensure that none of said passengers are themselves dangerous. These precautions are taken in addition to the traditional varieties, like having to present a passport:
“Legislated in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the [Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)] required that by January 2007 all people arriving in the US by air, including US and Canadian citizens, had to have a valid passport to enter… [As] of June 2009, this requirement extended to land (and sea) border arrivals, meaning that all Americans and Canadians have to carry a passport or an enhanced driver’s license to cross the 49th parallel.”[ii]
This not only reveals how air travel security takes precedence over other means of transportation, but is also reveals an added layer of cumbersome precautions, especially considering that “Although more than 50 per cent of Canadians have a current passport, the figure is much smaller for Americans.”[iii] After all of this, upon arrival at an international destination, a passenger is also generally required to pass through Customs and Immigration. This is an added precaution to ensure that a dangerous passenger who got past his or her own country’s security cannot also get into the next. It is also, perhaps primarily, official documentation of a person’s whereabouts and possessions, but for most, it is perceived as another step in the process of “proving to the world that one is not a terrorist.”
As mentioned before, it could be argued that this has been surprisingly effective. There have been no major air attacks on United States soil by a foreign party (terrorist or otherwise) in the last decade. However, that is an awful lot of qualifiers – too many to suggest total success. There have been attacks on American soil not by air, there have been attacks by foreign parties not on American soil, there have been air attacks involving Americans in other countries, there have been terrorist attacks, and Americans have been their victims. According to the BBC, “In the past decade, militant groups either directly linked to al-Qaeda or inspired by its message have committed acts of violence around the world. The United States eventually tracked down its number one target, Osama Bin Laden, but has yet to succeed in its wider aim of eliminating the threat to international security from militant groups.”[iv] So what exactly has been the real legacy of these regulations? The true impact is much more alarming than one might expect, and it reveals a huge gap in the American perception of terrorism – a gap that is keeping the country from dealing with the issue effectively.
First of all, by forcing all citizens traveling by air (regardless of position, status, race, age, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, hair color, or anything else that might separate them from the crowd) to observe and undergo the same security measures, it reinforces the idea that one of them might be a terrorist. At first, it might seem that increased security would also make people feel more secure. They have just gone through a rigorous interrogation of their personal integrity and passed, as did everyone else. That alone is comforting. However, by virtue of the fact that they had to go through it at all, the government was once again reminding them of the ever-impending attack on their freedoms and values that could come at any moment. How this is supposed to make people feel more secure remains a mystery.
Furthermore, because the terrorists who attacked on September 11th happened to be religious extremists belonging to the Muslim faith, Muslims were automatically targeted as potential terrorists. For quite a few years after the attacks and even to this day, Muslims coming into and out of America (including legitimate American citizens) were all but persecuted at airports, more often pulled aside for more in-depth searches and questioning. In fact, the United States’ no-fly list famously targets Muslims and others whose names appear Middle Eastern. According to Susan and Joseph Trento, “TSA spokespeople have told some media outlets the list is a secret/sensitive document. In fact, it is not classified as secret but only as sensitive – an administrative classification. As expected, it is dominated by Arabic names – the first third of the list begins with the letter A.”[v] This is not to say that a policy of racial profiling has been instituted, but employees are empowered to take anyone aside who appears suspicious.
“The [profiling] system is not designed to detect weapons or explosives. It is designed to detect the person who is carrying such devices… [A terrorist’s] psychological characteristics do not easily transform themselves into physical attributes. However, many terrorist groups are anti-Western. Consequently many members of racial minorities repeatedly complain that they are unfairly singled out for questioning and searches…Prejudice, whether it is overt or less consciously implemented, does play some part in “profiling.” Profiling should augment technological safeguards… In and of themselves, profiling systems would be incapable of protecting airports from a terrorist attack.”[vi]
Often, however, their use results in innocent Muslim air travelers being detained for hours or days without reason, simply because they were Muslim, or just appeared to be. Instead of increasing feelings of security, this achieves two things: making Muslims afraid, and making others afraid of Muslims. Again, it is unclear how this is meant to protect security and foster feelings of safety.
In fact, in addition to worsening the anxiety and fear already felt by most Americans in this sensitive and highly charged age of terrorism, this sort of fixation on a single demographic leads to the dismissal of other equally-worrisome groups. American terrorism is nothing new: in the early 90s, there was a rash of Skinhead activity, Neo-Nazis terrorized Skokie, Illinois in the 70s,[vii] and some kids shot up Columbine High School in 1999.[viii] Yet, the attention has shifted from these groups – groups that live on American soil, are comprised of Americans, and have no need for airplanes in order to carry out their plans – to groups like those whose faith is based on doctrines of peace and love. In fact, a shift in that attention was even legislated in the USA Patriot Act, a 340-page document that basically calls all Americans (even the ones who might themselves be terrorists) to arms in the fight against terrorism:
“A few weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks and in record time, the American government passed the Uniting and Strengthening of America to Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 – The USA Patriot Act. This major piece of legislation amounts to 342 pages and covers 350 subject areas. It also encompasses 40 federal agencies and carries twenty-one legal amendments… [Its] name being deliberately designed to insinuate that anyone who opposes it must be unpatriotic.”[ix]
This does not only ignore whole groups like white supremacists and other various gangs that have always existed in America, but it also ignores Christian answers to the very thing America is fighting: poisonous religious extremism. Witness the actions of Mormon leader Warren Jeffs, who was recently imprisoned for sexually assaulting two underage girls – girls whom God had commanded him to “take.”[x] The saddest part of this is that Warren Jeffs, and any other member of his particular extremist Mormon sect, would have no problem getting past airport security based on appearances alone, and almost no Muslim (or any other human being for that matter) would do the things they do, yet one group is detained at airports and the others would not be.
Furthermore, even airport staff themselves who happen to be members of a minority have experienced some form of discrimination in favor of US citizens, either being forced to give up their jobs or not even being allowed to apply for them in the first place.
“The post-9/11 xenophobia continues, and the government has simply barred many immigrants from working for the TSA. This meant that even legal green-card holders waiting for citizenship could not be hired. Thousands and thousands of competent and experienced screeners who had protected airline passengers over several decades were told they were no longer trusted. Adding insult to injury, during the period of transition to the new system, these private screeners were required to help train their replacements in many airports.”[xi]
Fascinatingly, this mental block extends even further than ignoring American terrorists by even ignoring terrorists that come from other countries, specifically countries that Americans perceive to be more “civilized” or “culturally evolved” than the Middle East, which most Americans still perceive as underdeveloped and backwards. Take Norway, for instance, which has recently garnered a lot of attention for their own terror attacks in 2011 – these caused by a white Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing political activist who did not appear to be a terrorist,[xii] at least not in the way the world thinks of terrorists. There was also the case of Muriel Degauque, a female Belgian suicide bomber that blew up an American convoy in Baghdad in 2005.[xiii] She was a convert to Islam, but nothing else about her would suggest to the average American that she was someone who should be feared. In spite of all of these factors, Americans seem to have forgotten that it is the terrorists they should fear, not the Muslims, and this distinction is not encouraged by harmful profiling policies like those practiced at airports. This gap in public perception reveals a corresponding gap in security policies, illustrating that the government is legislating on the wrong things, which is only worsening the issue and creating new ones.
What complicates the foundation of “homeland security” even further is that these precautions have not been kept a secret. Because everyone must go through the same procedures, everyone is aware of their existence – even the terrorists. Given that they have knowledge of the security procedures, they have only then to find ways of circumventing them, which is easy enough considering the aforementioned gaps in the legislation. So inadvertently, by trying to keep terrorists out, the government has issued a challenge: and the real terrorists will either get more creative in order to meet it, or they will meet it via alternative media.
First, it started with sending women and children onto the battlefield with bombs strapped to their chests. This shocked and appalled Americans, but they soon came to accept it (if for no other reason than because it meshed perfectly with the perception that terrorists will do anything because they’re brutish, inhuman monsters). This eventually evolved to strapping bombs to the chests of American women and children, as in the case with Colleen LaRose, a blonde Texan woman who the media began calling “Jihad Jane” in 2010.[xiv] Marketed as “America’s worst nightmare,” this brought to the American consciousness the reality that anyone, literally anyone, could be a terrorist, not just the ones that look like it.
Finally, it has progressed to even more innovative ways of getting into the country. Americans are and have always been bleeding hearts. If a person were to, say, pretend to be a Sudanese refugee, for instance, they would have full support of a sympathetic American government, which is eager to grant asylum to victims of political persecution.[xv] This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no limit to the creativity of the human mind, and a determined mind is even more dangerous. If they want to find a way in, they will – especially since air travel is not the only way to get around (and is in fact the least traditional, historically speaking).
There is always the land route, not to mention the sea. Terrorists have been traversing the earth for centuries. Take drug and human traffickers, arms dealers, and most other kinds of international criminals for example: their business is conducted mostly via land and sea, primarily because airport security is so highly regulated. Additionally, their shipments are often too large to make air travel economically viable; given this information, should greater attention not be put on roads and waterways? Also, consider the cases of organizations like the still-active East African and South Asian pirates, or that of Joseph Kony, who has been receiving a great amount of media attention because of a recent campaign to get him caught, captured and stopped. This individual has been kidnapping, killing, raping, and enlisting Central African children in his massive army for the past three decades, without ever really having need of an airplane.[xvi] Clearly, the TSA has not had much of an impact on his particular brand of terrorism, and if the amount of outrage expressed by Americans upon learning of him (in particular) is any reflection of their feelings toward terrorism (in general), most Americans would agree that more effective action should be taken against such a person than simply adding more x-rays in airports and senselessly groping the elderly.
Ultimately, though the process is little more than a headache to the average person, the deeper social anxieties that it has aggravated coupled with the new perceptions that it has created render the implementation of higher airport regulations to be littler more than a hindrance to personal liberty. In a twisted way, that can be considered a good thing. It protects normal people from themselves and each other. Most can agree that this is a positive thing because accidents happen at the hands of the innocent every day; a government that is cautious when the guiltless are involved is akin to one that is wise and pragmatic. Unfortunately however, between the loopholes in the ideology, the encouraged growth of a dangerous new social cancer (that of anti-Muslim discrimination), and the ineffective legislation that feeds these things, airport security is not only next to impotent when it comes to fighting terrorism, but is in fact exacerbating the issue. By trying to keep Americans safe from terrorism, the American government has instituted a policy of terrorism; the real puzzle now is how that formula is expected to succeed. The last time anyone tried, adding fire to fire just made the fire bigger.
[i] Mueller, John. “The Long-Term Political and Economic Consequences of 9/11.” The Impacts of 9/11 on Politics and War: The Day that Changed Everything? Ed. Matthew J. Morgan. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print. p. 8.
[ii] Sloan, Elinor. Security and Defense in the Terrorist Era. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010. Print. p. 88.
[iii] Sloan, Elinor. Security and Defense in the Terrorist Era. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010. Print. p. 88.
[v] Trento, Susan B. and Joseph J. Unsafe at Any Altitude: Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11, and the Shocking Truth About Aviation Security Today. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2006. Print. p. 186.
[vi] Sweet, Kathleen M. “Aviation and Airport Security: Terrorism and Safety Concerns.” Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009. Print. p. 283-5.
[vii] “Events Related to the Proposed Nazi March in Skokie.” Web. <http://www.skokiehistory.info/chrono/nazis.html>.
[viii] Toppo, Greg. USA Today. Gannett, 14 Apr. 2009. Web. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm>.
[ix] Jackson, Richard. Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism. Manchester: Manchester Univ., 2005. Print.
[x] “US Polygamy Sect Leader Sentenced.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Nov. 2007. Web. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7104832.stm>.
[xi] Trento, Susan B. and Joseph J. Unsafe at Any Altitude: Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11, and the Shocking Truth About Aviation Security Today. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2006. Print. p. 165.
[xii] “Profile: Anders Behring Breivik.” BBC News. BBC, 07 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14259989>.
[xv] “Sudan’s Hidden Conflict: Rebels, Raids and Refugees.” BBC News. BBC, 09 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17276865>.
[xvi] “Joseph Kony: Profile of the LRA Leader.” BBC News. BBC, 08 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17299084>.