The Hidden Geography of Airport Security


The balance of force makes some actants stronger than others, but miniature trickster objects turn the tide without warning: a pebble can destroy an empire if the Emperor chokes at dinner.

Graham Harman, Prince of Networks

high tops

On December 22, 2001, Richard C. Reid, a 28 year old British citizen, attempted to blow up American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami with bomb built into his black high top sneakers. One of the airline flight attendants noticed Mr. Reid trying to light a fuse sticking out of tongue of his shoes and was able to detain Mr. Reid (with help from other passengers) from detonating the bomb. Mr. Reid’s decision to try and use a bomb to blow up the airplane was triggered by the United States government decision to use bombs (much more sophisticated than that located in Mr. Reid’s high tops) to blow up parts of Afghanistan.  As quoted in a memorandum published in the New York Times, Mr. Reid felt that “an airplane attack, especially during the holiday season, would cause the American public to lose confidence in airline security and stop traveling, leading to a substantial loss of revenue which would, in turn, hurt the American economy” (Belluck 2002).

 Mr. Reid was conscious of the fact that his shoe bomb would have a ripple affect thought a variety of objects and experiences ranging from the ‘holiday season,’ to ‘airline security’ to ‘revenue’ and finally the ‘American economy’. As Bruno Latour says, “objects – taken as so many issues- bind all of us in ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of “the political” (Latour 2005:15).  The way in which objects come together to map out public space is what Latour defines as “hidden geography”. This essay will focus on the hidden geography of airport security – the place where the personal and political collide and international politics directly affect personal decisions such as how to pack one’s favorite shampoo and toothpaste for a long trip.


plastic bags - airport security

Before I continue, I feel obliged to include a disclaimer. In the last three weeks, I have passed though airport security gates 10 times, on three continents, not counting the surreal airport security system located at the entrance of a hotel I stayed at in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. I do not like airport security and I absolutely dread passing through it and having the intentionality of my objects and myself scrutinized. However I, like Mr. Reid, recognize its symbolic importance in making people feel safe. And as Oshima, a wise character in the Haruki Murakami’s book, “Kafka on the Shore,” observed, “the people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best” (Murakami 2005; 316). Indeed, the United States’ political desire to control our borders and who enters into the vessels that transit them is one of our trademarks, somewhat ironic for a country who relied upon the lack of fences present when they arrived to be able to build its fortune. But I suppose our knowledge of what the lack of fences initially allowed our ‘forefathers’ to do is what inspires the government to build strong fences today.


 Airport security is an assemblage of things and the result of complicated histories and emotions. It has evolved along with technologies of war and as feelings of hatred and disgust shifted between the U.S. and “X” communist or Non-Christian country. Prior to the 1960s (when “stewardesses” had not yet turned into bitter flight attendants who yell “chicken or beef” with resentment), there was in fact very little airport security. Then, between 1968 and1972 there was a sharp rise in hijackings resulting in 364 registered attempts, largely connected to Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Wells and Young 2003). This prompted the implementation of “sky marshals” on US aircrafts announced as part of Richard Nixon’s anti-hijacking plan on September 11, 1970. Similar to airport police, the early airport security was focused on protecting people once on the aircraft, rather than focusing on prohibiting certain people and objects from boarding the plane. Sky marshals were not as effective as hoped, which led to the Federal Aviation Administration requiring that passengers and their belongings be screened prior to boarding in 1973.  Up until 2002, airport security was primarily a private enterprise regulated by federal laws, yet after September 11th, The Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed requiring all screenings at airports to be conducted by Federal employees in addition to a slew of policies focused on controlling things. The Transportation Security Administration was formed and later included as part of Bush’s baby,  “The Department of Homeland Security” and has over 54,000 workers nationwide, all of whom have to pass through extensive interviews and criminal background checks prior to being hired (Wells and Young 2003). 

Private security enterprises have benefited from the ‘fear industry’, being challenged to develop new technologies to keep up with the changing nature of war, hate, and people’s goals with airplane attacks.  New technologies to detect biological pathogens, full-body scans to more effectively catch weapons, and mechanisms to detect body temperature and prevent people from boarding aircrafts suspected of carrying the Swine Flu virus have been developed. Things designed to detect other things, with the assumption that because they are machines and technology, they are somehow non-judgmental and able to better detect objects without the error of human judgment or prejudice. Yet can intentionality be discerned on an x-ray screen? Are more than 100 ml of fluid, even nail clippers or scissors bad intentions materialized? No, I would argue that they are evidence of Latour’s assertion that the “Body Politik” is not only made of people”, but rather “thick with things” (Latour 2005: 16) and the laws, businesses, and policies designed to regulate and control them. 


While the technology used to detect objects has evolved, the reasons why airplanes are targets of attacks seems to have remained largely the same. The physical body of the airplane (or even arguably that of the people on it) is not the end goal of the ‘terrorist’, but rather the politics of the explosion. The destruction of airplanes is a message that provokes fear, uncertainty and, at least in the case of attacks targeted at the United States, negatively affect the center of US power: the economy. Similar to Latour’s gun, it is not the gun or bomb that is the ‘problem’. The Transportation Security Administration and machines developed to detect dangerous things divert attention to the material manifestations of the assemblage rather the hidden geography of the political landscape that led to the gun, or bomb in this case, being on the plane in the first place. 



Belluck, Pam. (2002). Traces of Terror: The show bomb case; Prosecutors See Plot in Attempted  Bombing. The New York Times. May 24.

Harman, Graham. (2007). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Unpublished manuscript.

Latour, Bruno. (2005). From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murakami, Haruki. (2005). Kafka on the Shore. New York: Vintage Books. 

Wells, Alexander and Seth Young. (2003). Airport Planning and Management. McGraw Hill Professional.

9 Responses to “The Hidden Geography of Airport Security”

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    a fascinating essay, very artfully assembled. I’m trying to write an article on Latour and Security now and find myself reinvigorated by reading this. Thank you!

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