How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger
By Harvey Molotch
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Colors of Security
How does anxiety travel into artifacts of life, people's ordinary practices, and public policies—policies that can sometimes engulf the world? This book traces fear, from the soup of indistinct but keenly felt worries over one's own body, to the hard nuts of bombs and bastions. In between, and connecting them up, are smaller-scale sites and responses, like the hardware set up at airports or the barbed wire meant to keep some out or others in. I examine strategies for security against nature as well as against the machinations of human beings and their organizations.
Through various intermediaries of institutions and physical implements, individual angst transmutes into the power of authorities who themselves, of course, come to have an interest in stoking the fears that feed them. Amidst the resulting confusions and ambiguities, we—all of us—are stuck with the goal of distinguishing the sensible from the non-sensible, the potentially constructive from the self-defeating. Bad things do happen, and death is the final outcome no matter what; but the routes to death can be more or less reasonable, more or less decent—a guiding assumption in the chapters that follow. This book is against security as officially practiced, favoring instead meaningful ways to extend lives and provide people with decent experience.
My analytic strategy is threefold. First is the effort to understand this massive social, moral, and political thing called "security," and what goes on in its name. I try to explain where it all comes from, including the shapes and procedures that greet us at a place like the airport. A second goal emerges from the idea that, in the specific and sometimes hell-bent responses to threats, we can see how a particular world works. So studying security is a method, a way to learn how—through people's scramble for survival, capacity, and position—"normal" life operates. A third focus is practical: I assume the role of consultant, the kind who is seldom if ever brought in because I am looking for the benign in a situation that is more often in hunt for the demonic. I recommend, in the form of concluding "what to do" sections in each chapter, alternatives to the command-and-control tactics that so often take hold as public policy. Instead of the resort to surveillance, walls, and hierarchy, I indicate what I take to be more effective—and happier—solutions. I try to be very concrete: I get practical, right to the kind of equipment that should be present and how it should be used. This is a book of analysis and also a book of directions.
I do not shrink from the mundane things, the public and private artifacts routinely consumed in everyday life. They cumulate as pleasures and punishments in the course of a day or lifetime, and they can facilitate safety or danger at critical and unexpected instances. I am drawn to the late Susan Leigh Star's call for an "ethnography of infrastructure." A well-designed lever calls forth the right kind of pressure in just the right spot to make it work and with that a special human satisfaction as well as functional outcome. We can see this by watching closely and talking to people. When a contraption frustrates, individuals will turn their displeasure into random bangs, pushes, and pulls that may well further derange an object's functioning. In happier outcomes, objects seduce with a "technology of enchantment," as the anthropologist Alfred Gell once called it. In my own research of some years ago, I came to appreciate how utility and aesthetics, pleasure and practicality, are never separate spheres. Our lives are the sum total of our interactions with ensembles of artifacts and other people, including the people who are involved in managing the appliances. A misinterpretation of the machine, among workers overlooking telltale cues of malfunction at a nuclear plant, say, or system managers misreading calibrations for a space launch, can generate terrible trouble. And sometimes it can be ordinary people who notice, if they are provided the opportunity, that something has gone awry.
As the micro and macro intertwine, I try to capture something of the meet-up at security. Nothing is more micro than existential threat, the fear that one may cease to be through biological demise, but also through social death by faux pas that goes beyond the pale. Fear of failure, abject failure like messing in one's pants, sticks on biography and sometimes on history. Nothing is more macro than the collective action that could result. As they form businesses, open plays, build cities, or make wars, humans carry their quotidian humblings as continuous companions. You don't have to be whole-hog Freudian to think that our early worries stay with us not only as private trouble but also as public forces. Life continues reinforcing our original vulnerability, with both ridicule and humiliation always in potential play.
The driving force behind all of it is fear that one's taken-for-granted world is being lost—in a fleeting moment or a longer durée. Security, for my purposes, means being able to assume that day-to-day, moment-to-moment human planning can go forward. When the whole welter of personal and collective projects can be thought about and acted on, succeeded in, and failed upon, the normalcy of the human condition is in play. I am not directed toward security in the sense of material satisfaction—a decent house or full belly—however righteous such goals may be. I'm thinking of security as the feeling and reality that such goals are even possible to pursue, that there is a sensible and reliable world in which to act. It is a more-or-less state; no individual and no community can be fully secure either in feeling or in reality, but some are closer than others. Places, offices, bureaucracies, and functionaries that explicitly use the word "security," as on their signs, uniforms, and mastheads, are working this idea as a professional and business practice. I am drawn to such designations in this book as relevant sites for thinking and further examination.
With so much at stake, there is a compulsion among those so charged with responsibility but also among many other people as well, to do something. Some individuals respond to disaster by fielding resources with imaginative generosity. Others may be mesmerized by routine and proceed as irrelevant bystanders. And still, as another alternative, there are scoundrels who revert to selfish power and reinforce their domination. All will be in evidence in the chapters that follow.
Although this book is overwhelmingly oriented to contemporary responses and from a U.S.-centric point of view, much of the basic repertoire is familiar enough to students of history and anthropology—particularly the darker sides that seem the most documented. In the cosmology of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea, "Death was always caused by an enemy, either directly in war or by malevolent magic. Each death created an imbalance that had to be corrected through the death of an enemy." The Black Death justified the search for witches or the demonization of Jews, the poor, the homeless, vagrants, or any Other who might have been locally available. "Moral panics" —as we now call them thanks to Stanley Cohen's studies of how publics cook up shared fears—are at the ready for crisis deployment. Lynchings in the U.S. South were, in this framework, events of exorcising fears of sexual threat and impending social upheaval. From the surviving photos, it appears that the white audiences enjoyed these scenes of strange fruit—an "ecstasy of bigotry," to use Christopher Lane's phrase in a somewhat different context.
Anyone researching security, even in more placid places like the contemporary United States, runs into some unusual methodological problems. Authorities, and sometimes individual persons as well, fear that revealing details of what they do to enhance safety will, in the wrong hands, undo whatever protections are in place. If enemies know where New York's emergency headquarters are located (165 Cadman Plaza East, published on the city's website, replacing the agency's former headquarters, which were in the World Trade Center), they can zap it, bringing everything down. If access to emergency data is free and open, miscreants can get hold of that data. If bad guys know the locations of the pumping stations that keep water from inundating the city, they can disable them to create massive floods. The dilemma, instructive in itself, is that holding information secret also prevents people from knowing what to do when they might be of help. If you don't know where the fire station is, you can't run in and report the fire—especially salient when a big emergency knocks the phones out of commission. If those in charge become disabled, others can't take over if the communication system is password protected.
As with all decisions about risk, there is a distributional effect to keeping things close to the chest. Some people have easier access to the inside information and strategic materials than do others. For whatever reason, some end up with more security privilege than others. It was indeed women and children first as the Titanic went down, but social class also had played a role; first-class passengers were more likely to find a place on a lifeboat than were those in other classes. Second class came next, and third-class passengers had the least opportunity for survival. On airplanes, people in business and first class have special lines at security and when on board more toilet access when they need it. As Bridget Hutter and Michael Power remark, assigning risk and its trade-offs is a "moral technology." Choices must be made about whose protection counts the most, what sources of danger will be most guarded against, and which types of remedies will come on board and at what stage of remediation.
Somewhat similar issues arose as a methodological problem for me: who would tell me what sorts of information, given the risks of sharing? I wanted access to information for my possible publications and to fulfill the mandate of my grants. Some officials were not sympathetic even if they themselves had access (and sometimes they did not). If, in interviewing an official, I mentioned the word "security," I risked a complete shutdown of what might already be a particularly closed bureaucracy, as was the case, for example, with the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Across the security world, outsiders have trouble learning from those who actually run the systems. Besides bother and more work for me, such knowledge barriers make it less likely that a nosy sociologist or someone else trying to be helpful might be of some use. All this, and more, contributes to what the sociologist Edward Shils, albeit referring to a different aspect of the problem, called "the torment of secrecy."
Information in this book thus comes from wherever I could find it. In my research on the subways and also in regard to the mayhem of Hurricane Katrina, I—along with advanced graduate students and colleagues variously working with me—carried out extensive interviews with a large number of relevant individuals. We employed other commonplace social science techniques as well, including use of government documents, websites, and journalistic trails, and some archival investigations. I also gained from my NYU seminar students, primarily undergraduates, who did fieldwork projects related to some of the sites of concern. Dear friends trusted me with their own sometimes-intimate experiences of public spaces, particularly at airports and in the restroom (another site of consternation). At some sites, such as airport security gates, my close-in observation could only go up to the point where I would not be noticed as a suspicious character. Taking photos or video was a problem, something I wanted to do as a mnemonic assist when later reviewing my evidence and also for possible publication. At airport security, I received stern warnings to "put that thing away," despite the fact that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules explicitly permit picture taking and absolutely forbid confiscating cameras or film that may be used in the process. Similarly in the subways, MTA personnel and especially the transit police, do not take kindly to picture taking even though the transit rule book is similarly explicit: "photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted." My coworker and I did take pictures but only surreptitiously. Officials' security concerns cause my data on airport security in particular to end up fragmented in general, although several former high-ranking officials at the TSA did provide me with more than five hours of detailed conversation. Some of the incompleteness in the various accounts provided—from whatever site—is due less, I think, to informants trying to obscure what goes on and due more to the troubled uncertainties they themselves experience.
Fragility and Disaster
Uncertainty—for them, for me, for us all—is a very big deal, beginning with problems at the root of sense making and the deep need for a dependable world that more or less stays constant to our experience. Humans live, as Melvin Pollner and others have taught us, on the edge of deep quandary. We agree to treat the world as "just there," regardless of the philosophical problems of relativism. Language itself, it is frequently enough observed, rests on "mere" social agreement. We use words under the convenience they mean more or less the same thing across individuals and regardless of situation. The "social construction of reality" is only the academic gloss on the more complete and profound fragility of experience. Call it common culture or call it a conspiracy to get by, but only benign lies provide the "ontological security" we have in our own self-identity and "the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments" we must take for granted. We accomplish a normal, everyday existence by reassuring, through our constant and sometimes arduous mutual reinforcement, that things are indeed as we make them to seem. Or as the actor and commentator Lily Tomlin averred, "Reality is a collective hunch"—but, we need to add, an unstable and not fully believed one at that. Absurdity beckons, threatening to upset all applecarts; we join together to ward off the "ontologically fatal insight," as Pollner again phrases it, that is always up for grabs.
With reasons to be scared in general, we are sitting ducks for more concrete and substantive threats that we can identify and articulate through bad dreams and sometimes actual human experience. At least some of these crises in artifact, nature, or both scare "in new and special ways," and, writes Kai Erikson, "elicit an uncanny fear in us." "It involves," he says, "the destruction of sense" resulting in "epistemological confusion and ontological uncertainty." At such moments, it almost follows logically, institutional and organizational routines lose their sufficiency for reassurance. So the arsenal of reassurance has to begin very soon and with gusto. The events of 9/11, of course, brought it home to the United States in a distinctive way—for Americans a "new species of trouble" indeed had been born. As the buildings crumbled, so did the taken-for-granted idea that no such thing could happen. The need was to reconstruct the sense of reality that preceded the attack.
Such reconstruction is always necessary, but complicated by a context of uncertainty as to what actually to do. With regard to 9/11, it was especially ambiguous as to what it might mean to re-secure public life in the United States. The prior situation had, of course, its threats—crossing the street and getting cancer—but only those in our military were vulnerable to foreign enemies. The new trouble was given the word "terror." No one really knew of what the threat actually consisted, much less what it might mean to respond to it effectively. Almost by definition, the inventory of techniques and locations of attack is practically infinite, but defense must be radically more focused. Only a few places can be fortified with walls and guns ("hardened" in the security lexicon), and there must be a selection of which types of people to be wary of—but from a huge population of candidates. This puts, as security experts sometimes point out, the opportunity for initiative always in the hands of the attacker, increasing both the level of anxiety and the uncertainty of proper defense. No permanent solution exists, making the war on terror ongoing, fueled by the continuing sense of being at risk against an agile (and "tricky") enemy. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Against Security by Harvey Molotch. Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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