The Kid in the Airplane and Pretensions to ‘National Security’

This week, a sixteen-year-old kid climbed the fence of San Jose airport, climbed into the wheel well of a plane, and stowed away on a flight from San Jose to Hawaii. Note: this is not a story The Onion made up. It actually happened.

A couple of weeks ago, the Transportation Security Agency relieved me of 4.3 ounces of toothpaste because it is a threat to ‘national security’. My toothpaste is the latest casualty in a long list of ‘dangers’, including white-out, a water bottle, contact lens solution, and the forbidden liquid deodorant. I have been subject to alternate screening several times for such offenses as wearing baggy clothes and having a surgically altered ankle. I’ve spent quality time in with TSA agents for tshirts like one that has Elmo on it and says ‘that tickles a little’ or one that says ‘FBI’. Others, of course, have dealt with more serious harassment.

This kid snuck over a fence, walked through the tarmac, evaded dozens of employees, climbed into an airplane, and rode it to Hawaii. Ever been on an airplane where they make someone move to the back to balance the weight? Yet they don’t know this … ? All joking aside, the kid apparently did it to run away from home. Good thing he didn’t have something more sinister in mind. Because news coverage suggests that eighty percent of American airports have similar vulnerabilities.

I’ve never had a whole lot of agreement with the politics of counterterrorism in the United States. In fact, I can’t say that I’ve really ever had any agreement with it. But you’d think that the amount of time, money, and specialization that goes into airport security would address hopping the fence. Perhaps if as much time were put into that as into thinking of potential creatively violent uses of toothpaste, then airport fences would be more secure?

I do fly a lot – probably about 100k miles per year, always at least starting or ending in the United States. And while I do think the United States has been hypersensitive about ‘terrorist’ threats to airport security, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the idea that there was at least 100lbs of something (someone) in a plane no one knew about as it flew.

While I’m happy to hear San Jose Airport security is making changes, the whole incident serves to remind me how much discourses and appearances of security produce feelings of security, whether or not those feelings of security are at all justified. Never once, sitting on an airplane, did I think that someone unauthorized might be on it without an elaborate hoax. After all, they took my toothpaste – everyone must be safe. And this from someone who has taken a critical approach to security studies as a profession. I guess, when your guard is down, its possible to forget to notice when you’ve blindly accepted a dominant discourse. Or when someone sneaks onto an airplane.

  • Bill Ayres

    I wrote about this point a couple of year ago (here: http://tenaciousmuse.blogspot.com/2012/04/real-security-is-hard-100-security-is.html). Terrorism is all about asymmetry – you can’t guard against anything, and given human nature you will probably miss even some of the obvious stuff (like hopping a fence). I’ve never felt safer because of the TSA’s ever-changing list of what random personal items I can or can’t bring on a plane. I’ve occasionally gotten things through security that I really shouldn’t have, so even their stated rules aren’t very good. My position has been that all of our “air traffic security measures” are more about image than substance.