The Other Falling Man: Airports, Security and Geopolitics

Posted on Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Author: Prof Mark Salter

Mark Salter

Core Member, ISSP
Professor, School of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, uOttawa

On Monday, August 16 2021, a cellphone video from the Afghani Asvaka News showed men falling to their death from the retracting landing gear of a US military cargo plane departing from Kabul. It was eerily similar to Richard Drew’s famous AP photo from September 11, 2001, a man falling from the collapsing North tower during the World Trade Center attack. In addition to the pathos and tragedy that resonate between these two images, they also tell us something about how international travel and airports have radically changed their political meaning in the intervening 20 years between the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

In 1992, French anthropologist Marc Augé caught the zeitgeist of “supermodernity” by coining the term “non-place” to refer to airports, highways, and shopping malls – smooth, anonymized, transient spaces where no one lives. Despite the rare instance of a figure like Mehran Karimi Nasseri who lived in the Charles de Gaulle departure lounge for 18 years, airports were representative of a supermodern fluidity, a global hub-and-spoke architecture in which travel was facilitated and easy, newly accessible by cheaper jets, machine-readable passports, and open visa policies. Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul and Up in the Air – along with every other movie that erased borders and distance through the steel and glass boxes of contemporary airport architecture – all promoted this fantasy of the superelite, a global mobile class that could escape the tyranny of the local. First class on the top floor, deportation class invisible below. However, airports were always difference machines, separating out the good from the bad, the rich from the poor, and the desirable from the undesirable – especially at pointillist borders. 

The 9/11 attackers used the ease of global travel to weaponize and politicize civilian aircraft in a new way with very rudimentary weapons, which was only exacerbated by the shoe bomberthe underwear bomber, the Sharm el Sheikattack from the airside, the Attaturk attack on pre-security lines at the Istanbul airport, etc. The whole global aviation sector radically intensified security apparatus after 9/11 and kept its foot on the gas. New processes, machines, and standards – mm wave scanners, explosive detectors, no-fly lists, etc. – suddenly meant that the airport was not a smooth anonymous transit space, but a crowded, unpredictable, and stressful experience for international travelers. 

Suddenly, the global mobile class was experiencing some of the security attention that the global underclass had always experienced: suspicion, randomness, and capriciousness.  Preclearance, facial biometrics, safe-third country agreements, carrier sanctions, changing visa regulations and other non-coercive measures were used to structure different channels for known travelers, the vast suspicious unknown, and the known enemies of the international order (which is in part why much recent human smuggling has sought softer routes). This filtering purpose was intensified with the global pandemic – international travel became an epidemiological vector and the call to close the border meant closing the airports. What were widely portrayed as gateways to adventure and profit in the post-cold war 1990s had turned into dangerously under-policed weak links in the chain of national and global security.

The scenes from Kabul airport last week reinforce this image: thousands upon thousands of desperate Afghans and other nationals are fleeing to Hamid Karzai International Airport, trying to escape the Taliban. While the Taliban had promised that all civilians who wished to leave Afghanistan would have free passage to the international airport, reports are that this agreement is faltering. The American plan to repatriate diplomatic staff, journalists, other Americans, and then the thousands of Afghans who had supported the Americans (and their dependents) has faltered, in part due to a failure of the visa-system and security at the airport itself. The global war on terror happened at airports, just as the geopolitics of allies and enemy combatants happened through airports, visas, no-fly lists and other soft measures, because with a global air network, any gate opens a path to the target. The thousands stuck at the Kabul airport represent the apotheosis of the off-shoring of borders – the preemptive exclusion of dangerous or suspect individuals at the country of origin. Even if the US accepts its minimal moral duty to those collaborators who are now in mortal danger, the weight and practices of the global war on terror are embedded in those border, visa, and refugee policies that make the airport a chokepoint and not a corridor.

If airports were ever non-places, it was only for a privileged few. What these photos of Kabul airport demonstrate plainly now is that airports are crucibles of international politics, where security and rights are refracted through technologies, bureaucracies, policies, and sometimes sheer terror. The falling man of Kabul reminds us that the romance of the airport is over, but the politicization of the airport is all the more urgent. 

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