The Lethality of Banality

I write this from an apartment in Philadelphia. About to get to the airport to catch a flight back home to England. There is the prospect of cancellation in view of flight regulations imposed by the British Airport Authority. They have been in place for four days. The destination, Heathrow London, is not promising, where other flights that will be caught the next day are bound to be delayed, where humans are ferried to tents awaiting their processing for flights that may never take off. A place where queues have flourished.

The dangers of flying. It is ironic that the air machine was the emancipator for figures like H. G. Wells and Marinetti. Whilst such works as the Flying Man were always indicative of something more sinister to human engagement in the air, the promise of his new means of travel were undeniable. The futurists extolled it ­ Marinetti flourished poesy on flying, making it the message of his colleagues and followers in the Manifesto of Futurist Aeropoetry, published in 1931. Flying was matched with painting, the sacrament of mobile humanity. The airborne life would be a free one, an enlightened one.

But the plane has become our potential tomb. Numerous citizens of the globe are ferried across thousands of mile in a matter of hours, needing to meet deadlines, forging a lifestyle based on speed and high velocity. To succeed they must fly or board a train. It could be a death sentence: the means of transport has become lethal. Now, they become live bombs and features of a capricious life: cancellation, rescheduling, potential detonations over lonely bodies of water either across the Atlantic or the Pacific.

The shifting boundaries of terrorism and counter-terrorism relocate conflict to the most banal situations, the most ordinary scenes. Baby’s milk becomes potentially lethal. Toothpaste becomes the building block to detonation. We are no longer allowed the ritual of purchasing duty-free items. The mollifying prospect of reading a good book in the cabin has disappeared. Transport will become dull.

A survey of this heavy-handed security response is depressing. It is a placebo. It plays into the hands of the terrorist network. It is paralysis writ large. The logical approach should be a constructive one: hiring more personnel, more staff to expedite the process of searching. It is questionable whether the recent British Airport Authority limitations on the nature of modern travel with its heavy reliance on in flight technology and communication (laptops and so forth) can be sustained.

The banal life, in short, must be allowed to remain banal, ordinary. It is the state of emergency that feeds the success of a terrorist threat. Banality kills it; the ordinary life murders the psychological venom inherent in all terrorist tactics. Business in the U.S. resumed with almost clinical efficiency within hours of the attacks of September 11. It was this vulgar assertion of strength, this cool indifference to the prospect of paralysis, that was notable in the immediate aftermath. The Trade Towers were gone, but Wall Street re-opened with dizzying speed, the Pentagon recommenced its bureaucratic tasks for war. America’s business is indeed business, quipped Coolidge.

Measures like ‘profiling’ that are bound to cause even more delays miss the point. With all its weak prejudices, its hunches, its foolish suppositions, ‘profiling’ will simply give an unwarranted authority to the ignorant. Arab and Muslim names are then quarantined, condemned in advance, something we saw a bit off even before this. How often would flights be delayed because of an unfortunate soul called Adbul bin Hassan would be held behind for further ‘profiling’?

The solution: give the travelling public its drink, its baby milk and its toothpaste. If need be, staff the airports more efficiently. Life must go on. As I finish this piece, the news is confirmed. There will be no flight on British Airways to Heathrow this evening.

BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: