The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A (very reluctant) case for Airport Security

March 18, 2013

For students of international affairs and security, especially from either side of the Atlantic, its that time of year again when we  congregate at the ISA Conference to muse on the globalisation of everything in a borderless world…after enduring an increasingly unpleasant border regime at the Airport.

I’m not sure about our readers, but the general experience of Heathrow, JFK or LAX is not exactly border free. In the age of anxiety, about mass casualty terrorism especially, the airport in states that once fancied themselves far away from the troubled places on the planet has become an ever more humorless and irritating place. For those who particularly don’t enjoy the slow strip-tease on the human conveyor belt towards the metal detector, not to mention being touched by uniformed strangers, it is positively humiliating. Bio-security is just no fun.

Of course, this is about lots of things beyond hard material security. The performance of sovereignty is a big part of it. ‘Nothing to Declare’, the Australian reality-tv show about customs officials rummaging through suitcases, x-raying dubious packages and finding rare flora concealed in laptops is popular, I would suggest, partly because it reassures viewers that there is a fortress of sorts on the frontier. And it is popular partly because its guards are strong but polite types who can calmly stare down the increasingly agitated and emotional potential smugglers, dope dealers or apocalyptic militants. Few enjoy the experience of getting scanned down, talked at or looked up, but boy does it entertain us and secretly please a lot of citizens when their own states do it to others on TV.

The cheap and obvious thing at this point is to rail against it. But what kind of defence do we want? I’m not talking about more profound questions of addressing-root-causes, but what kind of shields do we want erected? This is a problem, because those who are skeptical about the need for a paranoid airport security are usually also skeptical about the more ambitious antidotes to terrorism, namely liberal crusading/armed nationbuilding/ or other kinds of violent pacification of the fragile/failed states that are said to spawn the global guerrillas that threaten us.

For those who don’t believe Al Qaeda and its ilk are any kind of serious security problem, there is a consistency in opposing both the President who aims to eradicate militant jihadism through a global war, and the dead-eyed airport official who doesn’t tolerate spray cans or jokes.

But for those who do regard AQ and its ilk as some kind of threat, even if that that threat lies in our imprudent responses to its violent acts, there are some uncomfortable policy choices.

One of the things that has become clear since 9/11 is that the most effective shield against the capabilities of terrorist network is old-fashioned diligent policing, updated to a digital and internationalised age of intelligence sharing, espionage, cross-government cooperation and the unspectacular collection and analysis of data. It simply isn’t the case that the world is an open global battlespace across which anyone with an internet connection and an agenda can become a soldier in the jihad. When it comes to targeting the most powerful and wealthy states at least, that space is hugely constrained by state hostility. As Justin Hastings has demonstrated in the case of Jemaah Islamiyah, even the global guerrillas of today must negotiate both topographical obstacles like jungles and mountains, and state-imposed pressure. And part of that story is…the airport.

Obviously, there are serious questions that flow out of that, such as how to allocate resources, exactly how to balance coercive vigilance with legitimacy, so that no group feels (or is) persecuted for example, and how most efficiently these technical practices should be pursued. Some argue that airport security tends to fight the last war, for example making everyone put liquid stuff in clear containers and thus granting the adversary more opportunities to inflict inconvenience with the mere threat of violence. It is a fair point that by engendering mistrust and fear, the very provocation that creates an airport security regime is a kind of damage inflicted.

Nevertheless, the record seems to suggest that once terrorist networks seriously got the attention of the machinery of the state, the state has made it much harder for them, constraining their mobility, their capability and thus their credibility. I don’t like taking my shoes off and holding back the gags in the iron cage of modernity. But I don’t fancy having my body distributed liberally across the Atlantic either.

And if we are to oppose the kind of ill-conceived utopian militarism abroad that advocates of ‘stay on offence’ recommend, then we should accept somewhere along the line that we should have some robust defence, while always being wary of creating a cure that is worse than the disease.

So half a cheer for the deeply unpopular folk who make our journey unpleasant. Carry on, you officious bastards.






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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.