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The Permanent Emergency

What a TSA display in Wyoming can tell us about our apparent powerlessness to resist the growth of the security state.

The airport in Riverton, Wyoming, (population, just north of 10,000; elevation, just south of 5,000) is modest. Knock down the interior walls and you might fit a middle school gym in the space.

The airport houses two monuments. The first, contained in the lobby outside the security cordon, is a tribute to Wyoming culture and achievements of local sportsmen. Looking down at you as you wait to collect your luggage are two or three dozen mounts: bighorn sheep and mountain lions, pronghorns and mule deer, a black bear and a moose. Below each mount is a small plaque, naming the species as well as the man (it is almost always a man) responsible for the kill. The taxidermies are far more interesting, and true to the location, than the monstrously dull and interchangeable décor one usually finds in airports.

Once you pass through security—a process that somehow seems more absurd than usual, given the diminutive size of the operation, with three or four TSA officers squeezed into a 20-foot span of space—there is a second monument, of sorts, taped to the wall of the waiting area. Sixteen 8 ½-by-11 laminated print-offs, arranged in two clusters, detail the stages by which airport security regulations have grown from the formation of the FAA in 1958 to the present.

Each print-off poses a question—the kind of question a “government so small you can drown it in the stock tank” Wyomingite might have asked every time airport security became more elaborate, more time-consuming, and more invasive—and answers it by citing a historical event. “Why are there armed officers on some flights?” (Because of “a rash of international hijackings in 1960 and 1961.”) “Why are carry-on bags physically searched?” (“Because in January 1995 five terrorists attempted to plant liquid explosive time bombs in the carry-on baggage compartments of 11 U.S.-bound international flights.”) “Why are individuals required to remove their shoes as part of screening?” (“Because in December 2001 Richard Reid attempted to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 using a bomb concealed in his shoes.”) It’s a trip down memory lane—and down some other, unremembered lanes as well.

And, just when we thought the trickle of post-9/11 security measures had stopped (who, after all, has time to think about Islamic terrorism today, when we have so many domestic terrorists to track?) a new display has appeared: six print-offs about COVID–19. These include diagrams—addressed, one can only assume, to fully functioning adults who are able to dress themselves, hold down a job, and fire a gun—illustrating the sorts of directions I give my three-year-old every time she has a cough (“Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash”). Another sheet sounds more like self-promotion than advice (“CDC Protects and Prepares Communities”). True to 2021, the display is rounded out by a painfully lame bureaucratic appropriation of a stale meme (“KEEP CALM AND WASH YOUR HANDS —CDC”).

The print-offs are much less aesthetically pleasing than the trophies in the lobby. Yet they too are true to the local spirit, though they have none of the triumphalism of the taxidermies. They record, step by step, the inexorable growth of the security state over a span of two generations. Even when you squint at the display, it’s hard to make out many traces of personal agency, deliberation, and prudent decision-making exercised with the consent of the governed. Instead, the mass of security regulations has emanated from a bureaucratic agency or, at best, from an elected official’s creation of an unelected agency.

Considered individually, each new regulation seems to emerge inevitably as a reaction to events—sometimes to a single event—and, once it has arrived, each regulation is here to stay. There seems to have been far more “accident and force” involved than “reflection and choice.” And so, 20 years later, thanks to one Richard Reid—or rather, thanks to “our” reaction to him—we all still have to remove our shoes every time we fly.

Beyond piquing one’s historical curiosity, the print-offs demonstrate that the securitization of airline travel has operated like a one-way ratchet. One, and only one, sheet refers to a temporary measure that was subsequently suspended (“Why were computer printer supplies temporarily prohibited in carry-on and checked bags?”). When was the last time anyone talked about airport security as policies—the result of decisions—that could be reconsidered or even undone? When was the last time you thought about why the TSA and all its works had become “the new normal,” how effective they were, who, if anyone, had the power to trim them back, and whether it would be wise to do so?

Surely this display is unique to rural Wyoming; surely only a community as reflexively libertarian as this one would think to come up with such a record and display it to the public. But the fact that it is a monument demonstrates the people’s powerlessness to resist the growth of the security state. Each security measure was implemented as a reaction to an emergency. The most this community can do is remind itself of the stages of securitization, the steady normalization of emergency measures. Who would think of re-adjusting our security measures now that the emergency has passed? When was the last time anyone seriously proposed downsizing the mass of security regulations that have accumulated, with little thought and less accountability, since 9/11?

The recently added COVID–19 display is a reminder that we have become comfortable with the permanent security state, created in response to a series of emergencies. Better yet, it is a sign that we are now habituated to living in a contradiction: a permanent emergency. Emergencies are by definition extraordinary and temporary; and they are taken as the justification for emergency measures—again, by definition, extraordinary and temporary. At least, that is how it’s supposed to work. Somehow, the DHS and TSA and now CDC haven’t gotten the memo.

It is hard to imagine an earlier version of the American people—distinguished by a “manly assertion of its rights,” actuated by a “vigilant and manly spirit,” capable of “opposing with manly firmness…invasions on the rights of the people,” and characterized by “vigilance…magnanimity and true courage”—enduring, at such cost and for so long and with so little protest, the infringements on their liberty and happiness inflicted by governments in response to COVID–19. Only a people habituated to being ruled ad nauseam by their betters would put up with so much.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is assistant professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.

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