By Christiana Gregoriou and Pinelopi Troullinou

In light of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the body scanning security measure is much featured in the press

It was in the aftermath of terrorist attempts that security measures were increasingly established in aviation. The near-naked-image producing body scanners proved a media topic following the failed 2009 Christmas day bombing attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The body scanners were claimed to have been introduced particularly because the air terrorist in question (the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) had carried the given explosives onto the flight in his underwear.

The EU scanners are currently located and in use at Britain's major airport international terminals - London Heathrow and Manchester airports - but also airports in Finland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. Such security scanners had, nevertheless, already been trialled at London Heathrow airport, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and Helsinki Vantaa Airport years prior to the 2009 terrorist attempt. Political parties, non-governmental organisations and civil liberties groups raised concerns over their use underlining potential health risks and abuse of human rights. In response to such concerns, it is interesting to investigate how British broadsheet media texts in particular, report, question and/or justify airport security measures, and full body scanning to be exact. Analysing media texts is particularly important where terrorism is concerned, not least because such coverage itself defines what these terroristic acts are indeed for. In particular, two British, up-market national daily newspapers were selected for analysis: the traditionally centre right security-oriented The Times, and the centre left liberty-oriented The Guardian, therefore covering two different sides of the British political spectrum's reaction to the measures. Do the media promote body scanners as a needed security measure or do they pose concerns over implications to human rights?

Rather than an actual psychological outcome related to people's direct experiences, Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, argues that today's fear is instead a social and cultural construct, central to which is 'the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence'. Following Furedi's reasoning, not only are we all encouraged to fear regardless of the actual nature of such specific threats as terrorism, but we essentially become assessors of a negatively connoted risk, indeed pessimists, and ultimately compromise our personal freedoms in response to such potentialities in real life. 'Through risk management, fear is institutionalised', and 'fear response is further encouraged and culturally affirmed' Furedi says, while ultimately such fear of crime can prove as worrying as crime itself. The risk management itself can harvest a surveillance-society, paranoia, poor health, and even xenophobia; through igniting western cultures' fear of the non-white, non-Anglo-American terroristic other, such texts could well be generating racist ideologies and even related hate crime. It is this culture of fear concept that we interrogate through analysis of media texts about British airport scanners. Do such media texts indeed promote terroristic fear, and how does language contribute to this impression?

News media can affect what the public receives as salient, based on choices around what is covered, the hierarchy of the coverage, the space devoted to the topic, and the topic's portrayal. Content analysis of the given newspaper articles can help us establish whether the public is invited to shape the opinion that body scanners are preventing us from future terrorist attacks, or whether body scanners are instead portrayed as a threat to human rights. A critical linguistic approach additionally enables us to explore the social implications embedded in the linguistic choices. More specifically, we investigate how security policies surrounding terrorism are portrayed, reasoned, and communicated to the public.

A computational search limited to the given broadsheets over the December 13, 2009 - December 13, 2010 period elicited 42 articles about the body scanners altogether, fifteen of which came from The Times and 27 from The Guardian.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, The Guardian devoted more, and lengthier, articles in response to the body scanning security measure, and opted for a majority of articles negatively evaluating this measure, as did The Times headlines in particular. The Times' main body text proved more balanced in comparison. Framing analysis reveals that The Guardian focused mostly on scanners' abuse of human rights, and less so on their inadequacy as a security measure, whereas The Times texts proved more informative in fact, and focused on the abuse of human liberties a little less. A right-oriented newspaper was not expected to show sensitivity to human rights issues; for them, security is considered more salient. In this sense at least, the papers seem to agree that scanning bodies indeed abuses human rights.

It was the closer, qualitative analysis that highlighted more bias on behalf of The Times though. It portrayed the scanners as a weapon to be employed in the war against terrorism ('Scanners are just one useful tool in our security armoury', a spokesman for the Department for Transport is quoted as saying). Technology is deemed superior to humans; this 'new kit' is 'dependent' upon deficient, 'imperfect humans' apparently, while people to be screened are diminished to particles for security to sift through ('this more precise sifting should raise the game of security staff', Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations at the Metropolitan Police Andy Hayman adds). Racial and ethnic profiling are hailed to be 'politically controversial' but also 'necessary', and certainly 'a more sensible, honest' approach to what security officers are currently doing. Apparently, 'we' should not succumb to the fear of generating controversy via profiling, controversy itself being a mere hindrance to all 'our' (i.e. all reader-inclusive) battle. Young Asian males get unquestionably linked to terroristic threat, as are illegal immigrants for some reason, a grouping that is used almost interchangeably with that of 'Asians'; 'It seems terrible that someone ... put on an immigration watchlist is not included on a security watchlist', Patrick Mercer, the Conservative chairman of the Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, is quoted as saying. Finally, to undermine the passengers' reactionary behaviour to the body scanning measure, they are reduced to a moaning but also dangerous mob, irresponsibly causing chaos and delays for other, more obedient passengers. Their metaphorically constructed fire 'fuelled by thousands of complaints' posed physical 'threat', to the extent that it is aligned with the actions of a dangerous army indeed triggering metaphorical 'battle': 'The first shot in the battle against the body scanners was fired by Brian Sodergren', National Opt-Out Day's online organizer. In other words, whilst body scanners are metaphorically said to be a defensive weapon against the army of terrorism, campaigning action is reduced to a battle against such defence, and therefore, by implication, a battle on the side of terrorism.

The Guardian instead perhaps exaggerates the invasiveness of the new security body scanning measure, with one writer ironically and humorously saying that, to remember a holiday experience, one can take metaphorically unfortunate TSA-generated 'souvenirs' in the form of pat-downs and scanned naked images: 'they will feel you up, or take naked photos of you' he says. Elsewhere, holidaying in the United States is explicitly amusingly likened to 'a really bad relationship, played in reverse,' in that '[y]ou get yelled at when you arrive, and felt up when you leave'. The paper simultaneously warns against the power assigned to the government's 'technology agenda' over and beyond people's rights and liberties. The measures are said to have been hastily introduced, and merely showcased to comfort those who fly in fear. The Guardian is also unafraid to highlight issues relating to the measure's discriminating implementation, suggesting here multiple ways in which body scanners can be deemed problematic for us all. To drive the point home, the measures are clearly sexualised, with one 'method' (to 'continue the TSA's sterling efforts in making flying as degrading and unpleasant as possible') mockingly reading: 'Every passenger about to fly must have sex with a TSA staff member'. Searches are elsewhere said to 'include a firm pressing of a security guard's hand on genitalia and breasts', the machines all the while 'offer[ing] security guards an all but naked view of passengers'. The nakedness of the produced images is taken as a 'given', almost pornographic offering meant to intimately amuse the unquestionably voyeuristic guards. Though claiming that racial and religious profiling are explicitly banned, certain races ('It's a Lebanese Danny Zuko', 'men of Yemeni origin' etc.) get to be explicitly mentioned, suggesting that it is people of (at least) non-British origin or residence that we should be fearful of. The supposed randomness with which people are meant to be selected for scanning is also challenged and indeed mocked as 'celebrity scanning' of 'certain individuals' who security staff 'single out' 'at their discretion', clearly implying that particular races' human freedoms and civil liberties are here violated not only through the measures themselves in general, but also through the way in which these are implemented upon them alone. Finally, to encourage the Muslim community to accept profiling, a Labour MP even says that 'people would rather be profiled than blown up'. The contrastive pairing suggests that these are firmly the only options available to the community in question.

All in all, the controversial body scanning airport security measure proves instrumental for different papers to promote their own agendas. There is power in the number of articles devoted to this issue, in the length of these texts, and in their framing. It is close analysis that allows their true underlying ideologies to come to light though, opened for real criticism from readers, academics, and indeed hopefully policymakers as well.

The increasingly imposing aviation security measures remain controversial. One question particularly remains: Are we paying too high a price in the name of security?


Christiana Gregoriou is an English Language lecturer at Leeds University. Pinelopi Troullinou is a Research Assistant for the EU fp7 project ICT ethics, and PhD candidate at the University of Leeds.

Copyright, Chatham House; Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.




More United States News & Analysis ...






"Remembering 9/11: Scanning Bodies, Stripping Rights? "