John F. Kennedy International Airport is pretty standard as airports go, partly because it set the standard: its early innovations for managing passenger traffic, like separating arrivals and departures, were widely adopted by other airports; other familiar conventions such as automated baggage handling, electronic scheduling boards, and enclosed passenger bridges were developed here, too.
It’s not very pretty, with stark white walls, bright surgical lights, and décor heavy on American flags and security warnings. But it does have some unique features, including Our Lady of the Skies, a Catholic chapel built by a WWII veteran who’d made a deal with the Virgin Mary, and a public high school—one of the largest in New York City—that trains students as plane mechanics. And as the busiest international gateway in North America, one-third the size of Manhattan, and with flights from every inhabited continent, JFK is the first experience many people have in the US.
“To follow the development of [JFK] from its inception in the 1940s to 1963…is to witness the evolution of the modern airport in all its excesses and failures,” writes Alastair Gordon in his architectural history, Naked Airport. This airport, with features both brutalist and brutal, is an institution, and a set of rules and ideas representing the people who run it.
JFK was designed to be the biggest, most efficient airport in the world. The site was originally called Idlewild, the dreamy name of the golf course upon which it was built. Howard S. Cullman, a Port Authority commissioner at Idlewild’s founding in 1947, hoped for an airport with, as he put it, “no confusion.”
Which is weird because I find JFK profoundly confusing, and the confusion goes way beyond the asphalt of JFK proper. Like once, on a long layover between JFK and Beirut, all of us at the gate at Schiphol in Amsterdam were made to exit and re-enter through a new security checkpoint that had popped up out of nowhere. By the time I reached the little podium, everyone except me and an Arab-looking guy had been readmitted to the gate. A young woman with a dark ponytail and a New York accent appeared from behind a mirrored wall.
“Why are you going to Lebanon?” she asked me.
“To study Arabic,” I said.
“Oh, there aren’t any Arabic programs in the US?” she asked. I paused, confused. She must have known that there are Arabic classes in the US. Did she not know why someone would go to a country to learn a language? What did this question want?
She took the other guy behind the wall with her.
I return to JFK most often from Cairo, my ticket generally printed with the four Ss of extra security. Each time I wonder what questions I’ll be asked, or whether there will be questions at all. JFK airport was, incidentally, named for the first US president to order a CIA wiretap on a reporter.
After 9/11, JFK added personnel and surveillance equipment, becoming the second airport, after DC, to host its own TSA agents on site. Since then, potentially armed American TSA agents have been stationed in airports around the world, asking questions with answers either so subjective or so obvious that you begin to think the answers aren’t the point.
Whether in Dublin or Casablanca, the JFK gate always seems to be located in its own section at the very end of the airport, where TSA staff begin security procedures before you’ve even taken off. JFK in New York City is the hub, but JFK airport is now global; there are checkpoints for JFK all over the world, ensuring the JFK experience begins long before you touch down in New York, and its hallmark is security theater: the trappings of safety, without substance. The US actively limits flights from foreign airports that do not adopt TSA-inspired security protocol, even though TSA has repeatedly failed to catch most weapons and explosives in undercover tests.
But I feel for Howard S. Cullman, who wanted a confusion-free Idlewild, because that’s how confusion inevitably develops: you start out seeking clarity, and then grow older, bigger, more complicated, and the more you seek that breathtaking certainty, the more you’re weighed down by all the irreversible choices you’ve made in search of it. You follow a string toward the knot you want to untangle, only to find yourself caught in the center of it.
I studied Arabic, for example, in order to become a journalist who could explain The Region to other Americans. The TV news presented a hellscape of eternal poverty and war, a caricature that could not possibly represent a real place; I wanted clarity. In my first college Arabic classes, almost half the students were wearing their ROTC army fatigues, and we learned the word for “army” weeks before the word for “love.” Here was the first knot in my quest to help Americans understand the “Middle East” by understanding it myself: the Middle East wasn’t on the news to be understood by Americans, it was on the news because we make war there.
Then I started going to The Region myself. “With your US passport, the world is yours,” read the brochure that came with my travel document.
Once, at a JFK gate in Amman, our bags were checked by hand not once, but twice before boarding. A few of my American linemates grumbled good naturedly — it’s annoying, but it’s The Middle East, after all. The thing is, it’s not—many of these security procedures are the result of the partnerships the Obama administration set up with foreign governments. The US piloted these kinds of gates here, and then spread them all over the world. The result is this: JFK has gotten so big that people like me, who’ve been paid by the government to study Arabic, have also been questioned by government agents about studying Arabic.
The JFK experience doesn’t hit you until it hits you. And until it does, you might think that what happens to other passengers or at gates abroad is a reflection of those people and places, not of “us”—supposing that somewhere there is a reasonable explanation, beyond our ken. You might not realize you’re in a small and shrinking VIP section, while the No Fly list grows longer and longer. But Homeland Security’s Tactical Terrorism Response now interrogates 100,000 US citizen travelers a year.
Once, in Cairo, I ended up on a moving walkway, gliding toward the JFK checkpoint where the same official who’d opened my bag at the bag drop checked my credentials again; we smiled at each other with disdain. An uneventful process, this time—no one was pulled out of sight, and the electronics checks were light and fast. There was a third credential check, right before boarding. We strapped in for the 11-hour flight.
Toward the end, Tom Ridge, who resigned as my governor in 2001 to run the brand-new Department of Homeland Security, appeared on the screens to tell us about the security procedures we’d endure next. An older Egyptian man across the aisle told me it was his first visit to the United States, to see his grandchildren. He smiled nervously and asked me for help filling out his customs form. Another visitor who’d have his first US experience at JFK.
As I wrote this, the US occupation had just retreated from Afghanistan, and I was trying to help a friend leave there. She had to get on endless lists: informal ones, private ones, chartered ones, State Department ones. I called around to Americans with access to the planes. “I think she’s on the list!” one lady exclaimed, which could mean any of the lists — whichever one was in her hand. I texted an informed source to please help my friend. She wrote back: “As you can imagine, everyone is saying they’re threatened. We can’t evacuate the whole country.”
From JFK I’ve learned that the world is actually far too much mine, that every country I visit, I can’t even see through my own reflection. “The Fly-Now-Pay-Later crowd,” industrial designer George Nelson once wrote, “are nervous about the water, food, germs, ‘natives’, tipping, and all the rest of it…For these queasy multitudes the familiar look of a Hilton in Rome, Cairo, or anywhere else provides reassurance and the guarantee of a sanitary, English-speaking refuge with corn flakes for breakfast.”
The world is so much mine that I know the words to songs on cab radios everywhere and grocery aisles in Oman match ones in Pennsylvania. And every airport looks more and more like my airport.
The passengers from Cairo grew more serious as we descended into JFK proper. There was a contained frenetic energy as faces hardened, preparing. On the ground, we poured through a series of tunnel-like halls, emerging at customs, a narrow room full of snaking lines separated by limp ropes. The TSA agents manning the ropes were yelling, their words prodding us like cattle into a chute. Passengers muttered under their breath. A staffer barked at a family holding up one of the lines: A mother was stooped down, looking at her small child’s face. “She’s not feeling well!” the mother shouted back, scooping her daughter up in her already-full arms. My heart pounded, preparing for the TSA encounter, as a recognition machine scanned my face. Machines like this were originally used for departures from New York and DC; now they’re in 27 other US airports, too. TSA was brief and easy. Nothing happened, you could say. But I still rehearsed my answers. And when it was over, I still unclenched my jaw.
And I have to wonder if that first string I followed, the desire to know and to explain the Middle East to Americans, was actually the first snare of all, because I accepted the basic premise that Americans should be explained to. The kids ahead of me in school were learning Arabic because they’d protested the Iraq War, and I was learning it because we were still there, and the kids after me said it was to help the resulting refugees, but somehow we all ended up tied in this same knot. If you’re not careful, you’ll start walking down the path of explaining to the men at the gate, and then you’ll find your whole job is explaining what the others are like to people who can’t see past their own reflections. The goal of the JFK agent’s question is never to understand—it’s to have me stand there, explaining.