Snakes On A Plane, Arabs Off The Plane

Snakes On A Plane, Arabs Off The Plane
by Naeem Mohaiemen

"In practice, the huge registers built up from the sixteenth century onward did not serve as a real means to identify people. Pre-modern identification procedures relied on much more efficient means: informers, secret individuals who were good at finding people through informal techniques." [Valentin Groebner, Ready For Inspection, Cabinet magazine # 22]
SNAKES ON A PLANE was, for a brief moment, the uber-hyped, internet-propelled, buzz film of 2006. With a title that is punch-line and plot synopsis rolled into one, the film provided a study in Barnum theory in action. Forget relational aesthetics in a museum, this was the ultimate exercise in audience participation. Long before the film opened, internet discussion of the film was at a fever pitch and the studio capitalized by adding scenes in response. The most-quoted dialogue from the script actually originated as an online parody of Samuel Jackson's pistol-whipping persona ever since PULP FICTION:
"Enough is enough! I have had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane!"
When you leave that theater, think of the film as a metaphor for the expansive paranoia that has gripped air travel. If it's not on your screen, it's real Arabs or Muslims biting you as you sit waiting for takeoff. Overwhelmed by the fear that Seat 3B is not just looking for a snack as he rifles through his bag, passengers have become the new enforcers on our flights.

Getting there is half the fun.

Ultimately, this is not a security conversation -- it is about enabling individuals to act out their fantasies as "terrorist spotters." Every person is now an Action Hero‘, ready to pounce on evildoers. Even after someone makes their way through security checks, passengers are indulged when they "spot suspicious behavior", kick up a royal fuss and boot that passenger off the plane.

When you target behavior and facial tics, are passengers passive actors in all this or do they start behavior modification and self-censorship? This is partially debated by Bernard Harcourt in his forthcoming book Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. Faced with new measures to study passengers faces through "behavioral profiling", airports have become locations for a new form of performance art. Many of us have become used to rehearsing a script that allows an assumed normality roleplay, so that some hair-trigger suspicion meter doesn't go off.

What is suspicious? Suspect behavior has expanded to include not smiling (the Syrian musician case), going to the bathroom repeatedly (the two Indian men detained soon after 9/11), changing seats and using cell phones (Amsterdam-Bombay flight scare), wearing heavy clothes (Malaga-Manchester flight, shades of Jean Charles de Menezes who was also wearing a heavy coat), wearing hijab (JFK detentions), wearing an Arabic t-shirt (JetBlue's "We Will Not Be Silent" fracas with Iraqi activist Raed Jarrar), and speaking "arabic" (Malaga-Manchester again) In the last instance, mob rule forced two men off a Manchester flight. The men in question were Asian and were most likely speaking Urdu -- apparently everyone is an amateur and inept Arabist. Maybe they can help fill the Intelligence Department's deficit of Arabic translators.

One of my innocent pleasures are horror films for that balls-to-the-wall fear buzz. One such enabler was the first installment in the FINAL DESTINATIONAL franchise, featuring a protagonist who sees a vision of an airline crash, and by freaking out, saves a group of passengers who get off the plane.

For any of us who already have a fear of flying, the accelerating nervousness displayed in the scene below is true to life:
Alex Browning: "I saw it. Like, I don't know I just saw it. I saw it on the runway, I saw it take off. I saw out my window. I saw the ground. And-and the cabin starts to shake, right? And the left side blows up and the whole plane just explodes! And it was so real, just how everything happens, you know?"

Tod Waggner: "You've been on a lot of planes that blew up?"
This exchange is not taken well by the flight attendants, who insist:
"We will remove you from this aircraft!"
To which Alex replies with bravado:
"Fuck you! I'll remove myself!"
And he storms off the plane, along with some lucky souls who are scared by his outburst. Moments later, the plane is in the sky, and even fewer moments afterwards, it has exploded. Death does not take a holiday, and eventually all the survivors get their comeuppance in maximal gory fashion. The film was made in 2000, but subsequent sequels wisely avoid the air for freeway pileup (#2) and ferris wheel mayhem (#3).

If Alex Browning had a darker hue and a different name, the sum result of his freak out could very well be deep incarceration. Center for Constitutional Rights might still be suing for his release today. These are the realities of air travel in this eco system of fear.

Happy Flying.

Naeem Mohaiemen/Visible Collective work on art interventions about hyphenated identities and security panic. Additional Research for this essay was done by Anjali Kamat


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Diabetic vs. British Airways

Mob Forces Asians Off Manchester Flight

Omar Ahmed, Napster & Florida Pilot License

Final Destination

Snakes On A Plane: The Money Shot

Mobile Phone Triggers Dutch Air Scare

200 Detained at JFK, Muslims Targeted

And the profiling cheerleaders...

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OP-ED: Maybe, sometimes, profiling makes sense

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