Mini Object Lesson: Why Attack Airports?

Christopher Schaberg
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Wednesday, the Mirror posted the clickbaity listicle “Are Travellers Safe? From Istanbul to Glasgow and Brussels – 10 airport attacks that shook the world.” The subhead reads: “After 41 killed in Turkish airport attack it’s clear airport terminals are now the place for terrorists targeting the innocent.”

That attack in Istanbul was atrocious, and it stung especially on the heels of the awful Brussels bombings in March. But the Mirror’s notion that airports have only “now” become targets is just plain wrong.

Since their inception, airports have been “the place” for spectacles of violence. It’s not always terrorism, though. Sometimes it’s a daredevil stunt gone awry, other times it’s a terrible crash or near disaster. Occasionally it has to do with the military occupation of these otherwise civilian spaces. Throughout the twentieth century and up to now, airports have been stages for displays of excessive power, and their corollary dangers.

What makes airports popular targets for violent spectacles?

First theory: Airports are preeminent sites of progress, cosmopolitanism, and freedom. So oppressive regimes and their ilk target these spaces to cause symbolic as well as real damage. However, air travel is so regularly disparaged and frustratingly tolerated in public discourse that this doesn’t seem right. Perhaps during the so-called “golden age” of flight, airports vaguely held this special place in our minds—but definitely not anymore.

Second theory: Airports are places where masses of people congregate, thereby making them apt points of congestion and confusion at which to stage an attack. But this theory doesn’t hold up: There are plenty of other places in contemporary society that combine masses and modern rituals (stadiums, mega churches, shopping malls, theme parks—“soft targets,” as they are called). Yet these places are not routinely attacked.

Third theory: Airports are access points to big weapons (airliners) that be commandeered for nefarious ends. But besides 9/11 and a handful of other hijackings, airplanes have not been the focus of airport attacks. It is usually more about inflicting violence on innocent passengers and random airline workers.

Fourth theory: The prevalence of airports as sites of drama—delays and cancellations, for one, but also crashes, bombings, extreme weather, hijackings, air rage, even toy airport battles—has created a weird feedback loop: People look to airports for trouble, and they find it there no matter the political, empathetic, or violent agendas.

The last theory is probably the most accurate, if also the most unfortunate, because it implicates everyone. It means that in order to break this feedback loop, the public would have to radically change travel by air—and not just by adding ever more layers of security. As it is, with new airliners stolidly projected to last at least 30 years, things seem determined to persist basically as they are. Airports suggest freedom but deliver discomfort, and that makes them perfect venues for terror.

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