As David Westbrook shows, anthropologists are “navigators of the contemporary” par excellence. However, this job description calls for flexibility, which may include a shift in role. Counterterrorism signals a shift. In the recent past, counterterrorism was a matter of counterinsurgency, policing or action by secretive units. However, in the contemporary moment, counterterrorism – much like “security” more generally – functions like a floating container into which governments place matters of great consequence. This paper deals with once such matter – the future of counterterrorism at airports.
Counterterrorism is very advanced in aviation and in airport terminals. However, security produces insecurity, and recent attacks have been “landside” (e.g. Brussels and Istanbul, 2016; Orly, 2017). In the future, therefore, responsible authorities must secure airport-cities using advanced platforms, and a multiplicity of ambient environments, sensors and behavioural science. In this moment, to borrow from Latour, critique has run out of steam, and the navigator of the contemporary will have to engage with the architecture of the future. In this respect, two anthropological problems emerge, which are recognized in the securityscape as “anthropological”. Firstly, it is widely recognized that the deployment of force requires expert training and skill development, which traditional institutions do not support well. New assemblages (or “networks”) lack sufficient traction and are problematized. In other words, experts discuss the problem of counterterrorism architecture in cultural terms. Moreover, secondly, the ill-designed architecture of counterterrorism is blind to public behaviour, because many actual skill sets are missing. This paper addresses both problems.
I begin by exploring international counterterrorism networks – “invisible colleges”, to borrow from David Westbrook –, where people prepare to delivery of kinetic force. Secondly, I reconstruct two terrorist attacks from the point of view of the public. When these data are considered, counterterrorism emerges as a place where ethnography can help build the contemporary.