Airports make excellent laboratories. Looking about me, I see how serious everyone looks. Certainly, some are business travelers, all dressed up with somewhere to go. Others maybe have a funeral to attend or some other formal function. Still others are probably just nervous about flying. All of them wear solemnity well on their faces, and for good reasons. But what about the rest? What about the Disney-goers or Cancun revelers? What about the family reunioners or those who might be traveling just to do so? Why so serious?
Staring down the backside of my admittedly scratched-to-hell ipod, I see the very same solemn expression looking back at me. What is it about airports that makes everyone appear so grave—and suspicious. People look about them, glancing timidly at strangers as if they might just pull a knife on them or worse. Sometimes, I leave on my shades just to watch the reaction. The security personnel don’t seem perturbed at all. But then there’s this elderly woman in the seat across from me, flashing me nervous glances as if I don’t know she’s doing it. She must think I’m up to something; why else would I leave on my shades?
Am I a potential terrorist? No. Too easy. Most people think as much about terrorists in airports as they do about Cuban commies coming ashore in Miami—as in, not too much. Am I a perhaps a maniac, bent on tossing fire hydrants through airplane windows? Maybe. But then again, if that was such a concern to her I doubt she would leave her home, let alone ride in an airplane.
Let’s get cultural. Maybe it’s the environment itself—the social kind—that leads to such distrust. Like hyenas or humpbacks or pigeons, humans are social animals. This is no accident but a very important means of survival for a species. Strength in numbers implies more than just the numbers. It implies an affinity between the numbers that must exist for there to be large numbers. It is no accident that all humans organize themselves into groups. It is no surprise that all cultures recognize the fundamental importance of family by erecting their entire social, political, and economic systems around it. Solidarity enhances group survival by providing a defense against rival groups while discouraging dissension from within. Solidarity is predicated on uniformity in thought, word, and deed. Solidarity maintains stability by creating cohesion through consensus.
As societies grow too large to maintain solidarity amongst everyone, chaos always ensues. Cities are more prone to violence not simply because there are more people, but because there is less cohesion—less consensus—between residents. As cities grow more cosmopolitan, diverse populations introduce alternative modes of thought that disrupt uniformity and thus foster conflict.
Back to airports. Airports are excellent laboratories because they bring together not just different nationalities with disparate control systems (i.e. social structures) but also every sort of localized group from within as well as without said nations. Airports are passageways between worlds, and it is my guess that the larger the port, the more suspicious the traveler. Affinity is impossible because airports are not places to go but places to go through. Interaction is not only limited but circumstantially unfeasible. Small talk is not preferable as you are running from one gate to the next hoping not to get stranded at the airport. And why is that so bad? Because airports are the antithesis of our primal instinct for having a home and a community. They are cold and impersonal places; they are mechanized and abstract structures filled with modern hieroglyphs and haphazard assortments of shops which aim to facilitate some modicum of familiarity but succeed only in evoking and evincing surreal notions of what might lie outside the drab confines in which they are enclosed.
Airports are labs because they bring together everyone from everywhere for a limited time only, in a place that resembles no one’s home but does not try to be one anyway. Airports make us run fast, read quickly, and do so in the midst of strange multitudes.
I look back at the suspicious elder sitting across from me, suddenly realizing that she wasn’t staring at me at all, but at the Sikh sitting just behind me. In a strong Midwest accent she comments to her friend how much she looks forward to returning to Witchita. How strange the Sikh must look to her. How alien he must seem to her experience of community and the kind of identity it both espouses and enforces.