Recently a spokeswoman for the Transportation and Security Administration posted a photo on Twitter of all the liquid contraband confiscated at a TSA checkpoint during a three-day period. So many water bottles, snow globes, vaseline tubs, oversized shampoo, and tubes of toothpaste. One Twitter user’s sardonic reply summed up the absurdity: “I feel much safer now. Thank you so much.” We all submit to the drill, resigned to the inconvenience. It has been more than 20 years, and the emergency measures that bloomed in response to the 9/11 attacks have taken on a life of their own, annoying snags in the experience of travel but, beyond those few minutes in the airport, largely irrelevant.
The persistence of these rituals of submission and compliance should be a warning today, as we slide from a Covid-19 emergency to a normalization of heightened bio-security. In the first months of the pandemic, most people submitted to extreme restrictions on their personal liberties in a spirit of communal sacrifice and participation—war footing at the level of the individual. Perhaps there were doubts, but the threat was real, the need was urgent—just as in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 a sudden unanimity enabled the establishment of a vast anti-terrorist security apparatus. Now, two years out and more, the urgency has faded. Only a few still act as if Covid-19 is a dire health emergency. And yet in many places, the protocols of bio-security persist.
Masking has taken root like Japanese knotweed, continuously resprouting, impossible to eradicate. The promise that we can stop masking “when we’ve gotten rid of Covid-19” is not reassuring. The virologists have been trying to tell us since the beginning: You cannot get rid of a virus. And while the existence of viruses isn't exactly the same kind of existence as the existence of terrorists that haunted the national imagination in the wake of 9/11, these two kinds of threat begin to resemble one another in both the way they are described and in the mobilization of compulsory technologies of security in response.
Security policies in the post-9/11 period were animated by a particular idea of terrorism. The terrorist was a ubiquitous, irrational, invisible presence that could appear suddenly and without warning. Universal screening at airports treats travelers as potential terrorists, lethal until they pass through the X-ray machines and are proved otherwise. The presumption that anyone can be a carrier of explosives at the airport is strikingly similar to the idea of “asymptomatic transmission” of Covid-19. Asymptomatic transmission was asserted early in the pandemic as both an explanation for the sudden appearance of the virus and a justification for the most socially and economically destructive elements of the response: shutting down “non-essential” activities and locations, quarantining of healthy people, social distancing, banning of gatherings of all kinds, and universal masking. All of this was premised on the idea that anyone could have Covid-19, that anyone could be infectious, that everyone was a potential vector. Breath itself was potentially lethal; I remember how in those horrible first weeks, I would cross the street to avoid passing a pedestrian coming the other way, how I would flinch if a runner came up too close behind. “Asymptomatic transmission” turned us all into viral terrorists, all the time. Our bodies endangered others, just by existing.
More than two years in, it is pretty obvious that the spread can’t be stopped. SARS-CoV-2 may have been especially virulent in early 2020, but it isn’t an entirely novel and unique virus; in its cycle of replication, transmission, and infection, it behaves like other respiratory viruses. Our bodies continue to be excellent at telling us when we have contracted a disease: Healthy people are healthy, and sick people are sick. For the most part, Americans have decided to return to normal and “live with the virus,” as we have with every form of virus and bacteria since the beginnings of human life.
It is heartening that despite the persistent attempts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its allies to persuade America that we are still in a pandemic, mask mandates have collapsed. Beyond the deep-blue urban cores, the scarcity of voluntary masks makes it clear that at this point, most Americans are “over Covid.” But just like the TSA screenings that confiscate jars of peanut butter and tubs of yogurt in the name of keeping us safe, the idea that masks are doing something to prevent Covid-19 persists. Even President Biden, who presumably has taken every precaution, recovers from his Covid-19 infection and returns to public life with the message to “wear the mask” to “protect yourself.”
As the image of the Syracuse airport haul reveals, it is difficult to maintain the fiction that TSA checkpoint theater is actually catching any bad guys. The fear of terrorist attacks on airplanes has fallen far down the list of potential violent threats to everyday life. Policies once seen as serving the common good are now experienced as a hassle and irrelevance, friction that just can’t be avoided. This seems to be where we are going with Covid-19 masking. All but the true believers have lost faith and no longer suppose that masks are necessary to feel safe. Yet the relations of power and control that masking activated don’t disappear so easily. Public authorities continue to assert that mask mandates are effective interventions in the spread of airborne disease. They remain poised to reimpose such mandates at any time. We have arrived at an uneasy truce: Don’t wear the mask if you don’t want to, unless the rule says you must. But the rule is absolute; to refuse or even to question the rule is to risk censure or expulsion. No matter if you have tested negative, been vaxxed and double boosted, and have just recovered from Covid-19—you will be treated like a pariah, a menace, a social toxin if you dare to show your naked face when not permitted.
The TSA tweet touting the quantities of contraband confiscated in Syracuse almost sounds like a cry for attention: Look, even though we haven’t caught any terrorists, we really are doing something. The confiscation of innocuous personal items has become an end in itself. Which is to say, the target of these activities isn’t so much the elusive terrorists, but the ubiquitous citizens.
In a similar way, the demand for masking is now detached from the fear or risk of viral infection. Despite the growing body of scientific literature exposing the futility and harmfulness of universal masking, such literature is dismissed as “disinformation” and excluded from widespread public discussion. “Masks work” is an assertion of faith that goes beyond masks’ immediate health effects. Masks may or may not work to reduce viral transmission; but they definitely do work at the level of social interactions and cultural meanings. The demand for masking renders intimate and universal a message that is enforced only locally and occasionally by our encounters with the TSA checkpoint: You are a danger. Your presence, your body, your breath must be screened and controlled before you can be allowed into the presence of others. To be together is a privilege that can be revoked at the pleasure of the TSA or the CDC, and any other organ of the state that covets the power to dispose of our bodies.
Over the past 20 years, the image of the terrorist has slowly evolved, from an anti-American foreign and alien other (Palestinians, ISIS, Al Qaeda) to domestic radicals who are positioned as anti-American (“right-wing extremists,” “white supremacists”). This change has been accompanied by the vast expansion of domestic surveillance and the militarization of law enforcement, as well as a widening infringement on civil rights. Constant reminders of the threat of terrorism guarantee public support for such policies. In this light, Covid-19 has been the occasion for another spin of the terrorism-security flywheel. At each round, the terrorist moves ever closer, and the security required to maintain safety becomes ever more intimate and quotidian. First it was national borders; then it was the walls around federal buildings; then local schools and churches. Now it is every body that is vulnerable, a potential target, and every face that might harbor an invisible and lethal weapon.
The mask becomes a personal, portable “screening” device. Like the metal detectors and X-rays at the airport, the mask is required to screen out dangerous particles. But the danger of the one who refuses to screen his breath with the mask far exceeds the consequence of an errant virus. Like the TSA checkpoint, the mask is a test: Which side are you on? This is why it is so difficult to let Covid-19 subside into the normalcy of another respiratory virus. Submission to screening is proof that you are a good person, that you are “kind.” Submission shows you are compliant, makes you compliant, transforms you into the one who complies. And if you refuse? Your naked face is a weapon. And you are the terrorist.