Recently, I was amazed to read the following story from a colleague of mine who had experienced first-hand the terrifyingly illogical world of counter-terrorism. He related the following experience:
Travelling to ISA from Dublin via Heathrow, I was going through security at Heathrow (through the dreaded terminal 5) where I put my hand-luggage through the scanner. Some sun-screen came up on the x-ray and so the attendant went through the routine of inspecting my bag. In my bag, I had a number of books: Imagined Communities, Foucault on Security Politics and War, The IRA at War, 1916-1923, Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda, and Terrorism: A Critical Introduction. The attendant took out the sunscreen, put it aside, and then took out Imagined Communities face down–he did not flip it over to look at the cover, indicating to me that he did not consider ‘books’ to be suspicious in the first instance; I, of course, suspected that this was soon going to change, and it did change when he took out Terrorism: A Critical Introduction, which happened to be face-up. As you know, this book has a picture of a passenger plane on the cover, and the word ‘Terrorism’ in a pretty big font–and so he stopped, seemingly confused as to what to do, and saw Critical Terrorism Studies: A new research agenda as the next book in my bag, also face-up, while holding the other book in his hand. He took this out, put these two books to one side, and then put the remaining books, including The IRA at war, 1916-1923 into the tray with all my other stuff–i.e. the non-suspect materials. For me, this is especially interesting in that the IRA book specifically references what may be considered a ‘terrorist’ group on its cover, but does not have the word ‘terrorism’ in the title. He then flicked briefly through the two CTS books–as if to see if there was anything ‘hidden’ inside–before turning to ask me why I was travelling with these materials.
I told him that I was travelling to San Diego for an academic conference and that I needed to use these books to finish off writing a paper–which is true. I also explained to him that I am a PhD student and that I research and teach on the area of ‘terrorism’ and international security. Still somewhat perplexed, he requested my passport and boarding pass, took them, and stepped away to make some sort of communication through his walkie-talkie. As far as I remember, he also took my student ID–not sure if this was requested as other form of identity, or if I provided it to him as further proof of my status as a PhD student. I do not know what was said, but he returned a couple of minutes later to say–to the best of my memory–‘Just to inform you that due to the materials in your possession, we have called the police as a matter of routine. Sometimes they decide to come down in these situations, sometimes they don’t. On this occasion, they have decided to come down.’ In the meantime, he had placed the two CTS books into a new tray and after much deliberation, decided to put the IRA book in as well, just in case, and ran these books through the x-ray machine again.
I was quite angry at this stage, as there were people looking, I had just wasted €40 on sunscreen that I never got to use and I also felt perturbed by this feeling of suspicion being placed upon me. Most overtly, my main concern was that I would miss my flight to San Diego which was leaving in approx. 2 and a half hours. Having taken my passport, boarding pass and ID, I was told to ‘wait there’ until the police arrived–‘there’ being just the far side of the security area beside the railing overlooking the food court–in full view of everyone. At this stage, a few people, hearing ‘terrorism’ in an airport setting, were curious and stuck around in the background, looking away and pretending to look at the ground/ceiling every time I caught their eye. Before moving a couple of steps back to this new ‘waiting area’, I asked the security attendant–in a pretty angry tone, it has to be said–‘what is the rationale for this? These are academic, published books on terrorism that are directly related to my studies’. I don’t remember his exact response, but basically he did not address this and told me to ‘wait there’ until the police arrived. I asked ‘how long will that be, as I have a flight to catch’, and he responded that it won’t be long, in a very disparaging manner–as if he was revelling in the power of having me as a suspect.
At this stage, I was very annoyed and pretty anxious about missing my flight. Feeling the gaze of suspicion, I suddenly became aware of my posture, how I was standing, asking myself do I sit down, where do I look, how do I look, and actually imagining how a ‘real terrorist’ would act and stand in this situation, in some sort of a mind-game. I decided that a ‘real terrorist’ would be scratching himself as I was, and told myself to stop doing that–my priority was to get to San Diego, so I also made a conscious decision to be nice in any more dealings with that official and any others–I felt that if I was in any way confrontational with the police when they come, it will only contribute to the chances of me missing my flight. I knew this incident was becoming more and more significant in terms of what I study, I but said to myself that I would think about that afterwards. I was waiting for 45-50 minutes for the police to come, and in that time I inquired, again, as to how much longer it will take. Once again, I was unceremoniously told to ‘wait over there’. The security attendant changed shift after about 25mins of this time and handed my passport, boarding pass and student ID to a new security attendant. He filled her in with the basic details and she came over to me to ask about the situation. I explained to her what I had told the guy and she was far more amenable, which put me more at ease.
After 45-50 minutes, I noticed some police uniforms to my right coming through the security section. I counted 12 police officers, especially noticing their handguns and batons, all coming towards me. I had decided in this instance that San Diego would remain a pipe dream and that I was in for a very long and far less sunny afternoon at Heathrow. Luckily, they all passed me except for 2 officers, as they were actually only changing shifts, so I was quite relieved, naturally. First thing to say here is that the two police officers were very cordial. Once again, they apologised for the delay in coming down–to which I reciprocated, ‘don’t worry about it’, acting out my decision to be as nice as possible to facilitate my chances of getting on the flight.
One officer (probably in early his 30s) did all the questioning and basically asked me, again, why I had these materials and what was the purpose of my travel. I relayed my story again that I was going to an academic conference and that I needed these books to write a paper. He understood this, and seemed pretty interested on a personal level as to my area of research. I asked him how long more I’d be waiting, as I wanted to catch my flight and he replied that they had called Special Branch to run a ‘background check’ on me, and that ‘we’ had to wait for that before progressing further (it had definitely changed from a you situation to a more overtly empathetic we situation by this stage). The walkie-talkie squawked literally just after he said this, and it was Special Branch, confirming that they had visited the university website and had seen my profile as a PhD student. Though I did not hear what was said, the officer relayed this information to me and informed me that I was free to go on my way; but before doing so, he needed the names of the books in question so that he could take these down and ‘pass on the details’–presumably to Special Branch–, presumably to say that these books are not a threat and are ‘permissible material’, or something along those lines. We went over to the security table top where the tray with my other ‘non-suspect’ material lay–including my laptop and a USB key which, if they had actually checked, contained mass amounts of material on terrorism, including a lot of primary AQ statements and other primary material.
Once here, he informed me that I would be placed on a ‘list’ for future reference, so that if I’m ever stopped going through a UK airport, it will show up that I am permitted to travel with such material. I inquired about this ‘list’ further and he ‘reassured’ me that it was just to make things easier for me in future. The security attendant behind the counter apologetically explained that the sunscreen would have to go into the bin, and I felt that there was a complete change in atmosphere here from one of suspicion, to one of respect due to what I studied and my status as a ‘lecturer’ also. In other words, it was okay for me to travel with this material as I had sufficient expertise in the area–which left me to question what if I was a person who had bought these books out of a general interest in terrorism, with no identifiable online profile confirming my ‘expert’ status; or worse, a Muslim citizen interested in this area; perhaps even flying to South East, or Central Asia.
After getting some food and sending a few texts to friends about my experience as ‘The Heathrow One’ in a joking reference to the Guilford 4 and the Birmingham 6, I was a lot more relaxed and relieved that I would be going to San Diego. As I queued up at the gate to get on the flight, people were called through, and every person sailed on by after scanning their boarding pass and passport. When it came to me, however, the scan seemed to bring up something, as the attendant clearly stopped to look at something on the screen, and seemed to say something to his colleague standing right next to him–also looking at the screen–who nodded and who also stared intently at the screen. He typed in something on the computer–which I had not seen done for anyone else–before handing me back my passport and boarding pass. I don’t know what was on the screen, what was typed, or what was said, but I suspect it had to do with my newly-fledged identity as a ‘non-terrorist’ rather than a regular citizen.
I am sure other readers will be able to relate similar or even worse experiences than this; they seem to have become shockingly normal when travelling these days. What shocked me was the way it perfectly illustrated some completely bizarre attitudes from the security personnel.
First, the fact that they needed to re-x-ray the three terrorism books is completely bizarre. It suggests that they felt that these books might contain more than just pages of paper, but that they might contain dangerous materials that are not detectable in one single x-ray but require double scrutiny. Added to this, it suggests that they truly believed that a terrorist might hide a dangerous material in a book with the word ‘terrorism’ on the front cover! Alternately, it might suggest that they believed that technology could reveal any dangers hidden in the suspicious text itself.
Second, I found it bizarre that possessing books with the word ‘terrorism’ on the front cover was itself a reason for suspicion – in other words, that only risky or potentially dangerous individuals would want to learn about terrorism by reading such books. For all they knew, these could have been books about how to defeat terrorism. This unknowing about the intentions of the reader or the content of the books however, fed straight into the ingrained paranoia of counter-terrorism and created uncertainty sufficient for immediate securitisation. [I wonder if there has ever been a terrorist in history who has carried around books on terrorism.]
Third, it seems bizarre to me that books can be considered dangerous in and of themselves, requiring intervention and careful monitoring from security professionals. This is an outmoded and discredited view which sees the written word as having almost magical powers to poison people’s minds, transform their personalities and make them do things which they otherwise might not do. It is the same logic that decries rock music as the cause of youth suicide and recommends book burnings to prevent the spread of moral decay. Furthermore, by putting my colleague on a list of people authorised to carry books with the word ‘terrorism’ in the title, it suggests that they believe that some people can prove themselves to have the necessary will power and spiritual qualities to deal with the powerful magic of these texts, while others not allowed on the list might be vulnerable to being seduced by the texts. Such non-authorised people might, by reading a book on terrorism, decide to become a terrorist! More broadly, this episode suggests that in the current environment, only scholars and authorised professionals have a good reason to read about terrorism: there is no good reason apart from that. Curiosity and thirst for knowledge are no longer acceptable reasons for reading a book on terrorism.
Finally, it is an obvious point well illustrated by many others’ experiences, but if my colleague had not been a white, European citizen but a Muslim or person of colour, the racist vagaries of profiling would have resulted in far worse treatment and perhaps being permanently banned from having books on terrorism in their possession. In this bizarre worldview, non-white and certainly Muslim people are the most vulnerable to being seduced by the written word and should not be allowed to read books on terrorism lest they are tempted to become one!
One day I may have to test out whether having my name on the front cover of these books makes a difference – or maybe authoring a book on terrorism is even more suspicious than reading one!