I am writing this, wearing a mask, from the eerily empty departure lounge at Glasgow International Airport. Waiting for a flight that I would rather not, but must necessarily, take for reasons that aren’t important here. What I would like to discuss here is anxiety, particularly the anxiety when faced with crossing borders and how a sudden change in how we are ‘treated’ by borders can present us with existential anxieties which we rarely have to confront in such a head-on fashion, thereby disrupting our ontological security.
Ontological security is a term drawn from psychoanalysis by R.D. Laing and more fully developed in sociology by Anthony Giddens. At its core, ontological security is concerned with the ways in which we know who we are and our place in our socio-material worlds. We perform our selves in the world through embedded routines and discourses which serve to “bracket out” the underlying fact that life is contingent and largely beyond our control in order that we are able to “go on” with the everydayness of life. However, every now and again, “critical” events conspire to reintroduce questions of existence, exposing our constructed self and potentially leading us to become overwhelmed by anxiety.
Crossing borders can be, even during the most mundane times, such a critical event. In order to cross we must prostrate ourselves before the sovereign who gets to decide whether we, as bodies and embodied entities, are valid or invalid, authorised or unauthorised, acceptable or unacceptable to the territory we are applying to enter. In the moment before the access is sought and either granted or refused the very essence of our being is on trial, being weighed and measured in ways over which we have no control – the facts of our existence laid bare and their contingency exposed.
Covid is not a mundane time and the way borders treat us has changed. I have a privileged body, I am white, cisgender, male, and heterosexual with a name that, while slightly unusual, is not likely to arouse suspicion. I hold a UK passport which, while declining in power from most powerful in 2015 to eighth most powerful by 2020 according to the Henley Passport Index, still provides me with a great deal of access to most of the world. I am (was) a frequent flier – I have perfected the practice of packing, getting to and from airports, checking in, going through security, getting food and drink airside, timing my arrival to both the airport and the gate for minimal waiting. In other words, I have routinised border crossings in a way which has bracketed their existential questions.
Covid has changed this. Over the last three days I have packed and repacked three times, I have made sure I have spare masks and hand sanitizer, I arrived at the airport more than two hours before my flight in case of delays, I paid for priority security to minimise the time I would spend in an enclosed environment, I paid for priority boarding and to choose my own seat so I would be the first off the plane at the other end of my journey. The airport is near empty, and yet, because of the anxiety wrought by the “new” way border crossing, I have walked to the far end of the airport to sit in an empty departure lounge, still wearing a mask, looking at empty tarmac. Airports are normally a place of life and, for many, barely contained anxiety. During Covid they have become a place devoid of life, and a place where the anxiety is unbearable.
In spite of all this, I am still a privileged body, I have the comfort of knowing that when I ask for entry at the other end of my journey, I am almost guaranteed to be valid. We have seen in recent days footage of asylum seekers in small, overloaded and ill maintained dinghies crossing the English Channel, the bodies on board dwarfed by the huge container ships they struggle to avoid. When they arrive at the UK border they will have no such certainty of their validity, their ontological security doubtless stripped to the point where it may never be able to be restored. I cannot begin to fathom the anxiety that they must be enduring.
And so, to end on a note of hope. I hope that those of us who are experiencing borders anew during Covid, as a site of ontological anxiety, will have a little more empathy, and maybe a little more kindness, for those for whom crossing borders is always anxious, and never certain.