Bordering and the Body in the Post 9/11 Airport


In the aftermath of the 11th September attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, travellers around the world began to see a massive increase in security measures in airports, ports, train stations, and land borders. These are the visible ports of entry at the limits of a sovereign territory: where desirables are granted conditional entry and undesirables face a closed door. Others have suggested (Vaughan-Williams 2009) that other forms of bordering have also become an ordinary part of life: electronic surveillance, exceptional policing powers, profiling.

But the airport is perhaps the border at which the traveller most obviously sees increased security measures: sometimes obtusely intrusive, such as full-body scanning; sometimes seemingly comical, such as being made to carry tiny bottles of shampoo in transparent plastic bags. The policies and practices of airport security have radically altered in the past 11 years, being driven by governments, international aviation bodies, security companies, and airport management. Do these measures simply aim to prevent terrorists crossing sovereign borders, or do they also serve economic and power political reasons?

I wish to consider the ‘spectacle’ of airport security practices not simply as a means of preventing ‘undesirables’ entering a territory, a purpose I do not deny, but also as a means of reassuring nervous passengers post-9/11 and as a projection of sovereign power at the most visible of border points. In the first section I consider the control over human bodies that is exerted in the airport, from the traditional inspection of documentation to biometric assessment and profiling. This leads me onto drawing on Peter Adey’s (2004; 2009) work and to the conclusion that the airport lowers the status of an individual – here, like Adey, I draw on Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the ‘bare life’.

In the second section I seek to assess whether these security measures are effective. This involves separating the reasons for increased security and considering whether or not the measures have been successful. I find that preventing terrorists from entering a sovereign territory can never be absolutely achieved, but that it is possible that security measures helped aid the airline industry by reassuring passengers. Also, while the power of the sovereign state may be displayed ostentatiously, the need for such heightened security shows the inherent weakness of the state: the difficulty in managing the mobility/security dichotomy. I conclude by stating that security practices at the airport are contradictory in their treatment of individual bodies and are not effective in achieving their various aims.

Security Policies and Practices

There are too many, and too specific, airport security policies and practices to go into in this short essay. Thus I shall look at a small number which illuminate the points I wish to make about mobility and bordering practices. It seems logical to first consider a cornerstone of border security of all types, the passport and the visa.

Mark Salter (2004) considers the passport and the visa to be two of the “three main bureaucratic pillars” of the US border system (Salter: 75). Visas grant a conditional right of visit to a traveller – conditional because actual entry is granted by a border official. They are often applied for in advance and form part of the trail of information that is accumulated by a traveller before he or she has stepped through the door of the airport. Louise Amoore (2006) states that, “[t]he risk-based identity of the person who attempts to cross an international border is in this way encoded and fixed far in advance of reaching the physical border when, for example, he leaves the electronic traces of buying an air ticket, applying for a visa, using a credit card, and so on” (Amoore: 340). This “risk-based identity” is often based on conjecture and incidence, but is used as viable information in categorising a passenger as being a safe traveller or a security risk. One might consider the case of Paul Chambers, who on 6th January 2010 joked on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire. A week after posting, “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” on the social media site, Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act (Hughes and Walsh).

The third “pillar” in Salter’s view is examination, or inspection. This is a much broader area which incorporates the border and security official’s discretion. The physical body of the traveller is checked against the biometric data which the official has to hand. This can be as simple as the hair colour, facial structure, and eye colour of the passenger, or even fingerprints existing on a database. Peter Adey (2009) refers to this dichotomy as the “data-double”: “Specific data about one’s body are being used to distinguish one person from the next by matching up the corporeal body presented at a border checkpoint with the digital data of that body stored on a database or a credit card” (Adey 2009: 277).

Adey also considers the place of profiling in airport security. A border official will examine the perceived emotional state of a passenger, focusing on stress levels and anxiety. Adey argues that, “[t]he unity of the body is undone by focusing in on pieces of it” (Adey 2009: 277). Essentially, one attempts to read the emotional content of a passenger from the physical appearances of discomfort and stress, but this can only be achieved by focusing on some physical aspects and ignoring others. One is therefore left with a partial picture. What border officials are assessing is the behavioural content of a passenger. On this Adey notes, “Behavioural detection relies upon a complicated blending of a biological body, and a social one” (Adey, 2009: 285).

By measuring the behaviour of a passenger it is hoped that the intent of the passenger can be gleaned. The practice of profiling thus immediately addresses possibilities of the future (Adey 2009: 277). This is a form of bordering which does not address spatial territory, but rather the temporal:  “… securing time as something that belongs to the state and not to terrorists” (Vaughan-Williams: 122).

Biometric security measures and profiling, point toward a security regime that is based upon control of people’s bodies and movements. Didier Bigo (2002) draws on Michel Foucault’s (1977) metaphorical use of Bentham’s panopticon, a form of social discipline which regulates itself with the need of physical constraints, but consists of invisible social norms. “The form of governmentality of postmodern societies is not a panopticon in which global surveillance is placed upon the shoulders of everybody, but a form of ban-opticon in which the technologies of surveillance sort out who needs to be under surveillance and who is free of surveillance, because of his profile” (Bigo: 82). Adey draws on this and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the ‘bare life’ – itself developed from Foucault – to theorise about the airport. The airport is thus a place of exceptional control where passengers have their rights suspended. They can be viewed naked by machines, have their private property inspected, and be questioned for simply displaying street or anxiety.

Amoore, too, draws on Agamben and Foucault to tie airport security to the concept of biopower: “I have argued that the biometric border signals a dual move in the contemporary politics of the war on terror: a significant turn to scientific and managerial techniques in governing the mobility of bodies; and an extension of biopower such that the body, in effect, becomes the carrier of the border as it is inscribed with multiple encoded boundaries of access” (Amoore: 347-348). Amoore blends the private and public, state and individual, here to suggest how the border moves through people, as well as people through the border.

Are these Policies and Practices Effective?

To measure the effectiveness of any of the above security policies and practices it is necessary to ascertain precisely the aim of these measures. Essentially, the narrative one is generally presented with is one which pertains to the prevention of terrorists boarding planes and posing a threat to the sovereign political community of a state. Alongside this there is an older narrative about the desire to control migration. Both are clearly valid and constitute the main desires of controlling the mobility of travellers. I will consider the effectiveness of airport security in light of these two desires before considering other aims of border control and airport security.

The fact that there is an ever increasing range of security measures in the airport belies the possibility that a single security practice could be considered effective in controlling migration or preventing the mobility of terrorists. If checking a passport were enough to know whether or not a passenger intended to take control of an airplane and use it as a missile, then there would be no need of any other security measures. Obviously a passport does not reveal such intentions. Salter concedes this in saying, “While the passport may provide a unique identifier and provide some kind of isomorphism between different government documents, it cannot guarantee intentions” (Salter: 84). Salter also extends this disclaimer to visas, citing the fact that all of the 9/11 terrorists entered on valid visas (Salter: 77). Considering the third of Salter’s pillars of airport security, examination, he also concedes that intentions cannot be garnered in this way (Salter: 85).

A greater deal of biometric information, more surveillance, and profiling may be seen as possible solutions to this dilemma. Adey, however, raises serious questions about the accuracy of profiling, in stating, “… airports are remarkably emotional places of dread, boredom, fear, excitement, sadness, and terror. Airports have atmospheres of tension, a stressed feeling” (Adey 2009: 278). In this analysis how could one look anything but stressed in an airport? The social environment of ritual humiliation that many feel during security checks would suggest profiling is a deeply flawed practice. Anything that an official can gather from profiling is deeply partial, in every sense of the word.

It would seem fruitless to deny that any regime of security practices could guarantee that no terrorists or ‘undesired’ migrants could board a plane. The possibility would always remain. And while it would be difficult to smuggle weapons or bombs onto a plan on one’s person, a large question remains regarding the security measures employed in scanning both hold luggage and products sold in airport shops. Security, expediency, and business seem to vie with one another in dictating the relative needs of security. Security practices in the airport will never be flawless.

Other reasons for heightened security measures co-exist with the more traditional conceptions of security thus outlined. These include the projection of sovereign power to visitors and domestic populations, as well as the need to reassure passengers that air travel is safe. To take the latter first, is it possible to consider security practices effective if they fail to reassure passengers about their safety from terrorist attacks, thus harming the airline industry? Certainly the airline industry suffered badly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: passengers feared for their safety in what seemed an uncertain world of insecurity. Garrick Blalock, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon (2007) suggest that, “Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that the airline industry lost about $1.1 billion in revenue as a result of this reduction in demand, which is 11 percent of the amount that the General Accounting Office estimates the industry lost in total because of 9/11” (Blalock et al: 733). The American administration legislated to increase airport security in order to attract travellers back to air travel, thus, “new security regulations were enacted to ensure passenger safety and restore confidence in the U.S. aviation system” (Blalock et al: 732).

Blalock et al claim that the competing demands for greater security and maintained efficiency created an area of contention: how to provide greater security and thus attract more passengers while not slowing down air travel to a degree that dissuaded passengers for reasons of efficiency? They analyse screening of baggage and of bodies separately and find that, “In contrast to baggage screening, federalizing passenger screening had no impact on passenger volume. The effect of this screening was slightly negative in most of our models but statistically significant in only one” (Blalock et al: 732). Thus a lack of efficiency was acceptable when the passenger actually saw the security practices. This would suggest that the passengers felt reassured by invasive security measures; there was a perception of security that could not be gained from the unseen screening of baggage.

Regarding the effectiveness of security practices in projecting sovereign power to travellers, it seems that the arguably excessive security measures in place today, if anything, would suggest a state that is not secure. However, the reassurance passengers take from security measures, that Blalock et al allude to, suggest a spectacle of security that is a comfort to many passengers.


In this short essay I have attempted to analyse some of the implications for individuals of state-led security measures that have been implemented since the September 11th attacks, as well as to evaluate their effectiveness. In doing so I have tried to suggest the competing desires of the security policies, not all of which are about securing borders from terrorists and illegal immigrants.

I have found there to be deep contradictions in the claims to securing individuals in air travel and citizens within sovereign borders. In order to secure individuals at airports, individuals must have the privacy of their bodies and their emotional states violated by border and security officials. I have drawn on Peter Adey’s work and, following his example, on the theories of state control and discipline developed by Foucault and Agamben. In conclusion I find current airport security practices to reduce individuals to ‘bare life’ and make them deeply vulnerable to the whims of the state and the ‘petty sovereign’ (Butler). I have also found security measures to be ineffective in their intent, as well as flawed, partial, and harmful to the sovereignty of the individual’s body and mobility.





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