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Encounters with the Watch List

by AHMAD AL-AKHRAS

Like racial profiling, the so-called Watch List hinges on a false premise that people commit crimes because of their racial, ethnic or religious background.  This false premise caused huge suffering to African America, Japanese Americans and now Arab and American Muslims.

The worst part of this is the assumption that practicing Islam, never mind being an activist at that, gives one an appetite for terrorism. In the process, people who are in good standing who did not have a criminal record are treated as “posing a threat to civil aviation or national security” or as “potential enemies of the state”.

Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reported last year that since 2003, a database that stores names of “individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States” has quadrupled from 100,000 to 435,000. I am sure the numbers now are much higher.  If the US has these many “terrorists” or “dangerous people,” then we have a real and huge problem that cannot be solved by a watch list that selectively targets people.

Watch lists only provide false sense of security by pacifying the public with the perception of added security.

Jim Harper, in his Congressional testimony “The Promise of Registered Traveler,” highlighted the folly of travel watch lists and identification-based policies intended to deter terrorists: “Checking identification for the purpose of comparing air travelers to lists of suspects or no-flyers is… deeply flawed and unlikely to interdict committed terrorist groups. Terrorists have ways to bypass these security checks.” In the meantime, people who are in the trenches of building the bridges of civilizational understanding and peace are alienated by humiliation.

On a recent trip back to Columbus, I was instructed to deboard the plane since my boarding pass was not “quad S’d,” [pronounced quad “esd”] In plain English, my boarding pass was not labeled for what is called secondary screening.  In other words, I was not subjected to extra screening, something that I am routinely subjected to.

This time around, however, I was in fact “quad S’d.”  And since my return flight was on the same day, I requested the return boarding pass just before I started my trip, and I got it.  Interestingly, the boarding pass of my return trip was not “quad S’d.”  So, the first leg was “quad S’d and the return flight was not.  This is great, I thought.  At last, I would not have to go through the routine of additional screening on the way back.  I thought this particular airline has gotten enough background information about me that they opted to give me a break this time around.

Long story short, I was instructed to go back to the security checkpoint and to request a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent to conduct a “secondary screen” on me and then come back to board the plane.  Needless to say, I missed my flight and ended up staying overnight before catching another flight to Columbus the next day. This meant an added cost of a hotel room and a second trip to the airport before the break of dawn. But that is not all.

You guessed it, when I tried to check in to get my boarding pass from the self-serve kiosk, I was denied and was instructed, by the kiosk, to see an agent.  The agent had to call a “special number” to clear my name (at least temporarily) and declare me eligible to board the plane.

This part of my trip normally takes between 15 minutes and 2 hours and 15 minutes as was the case while flying back from a west coast trip a few months earlier.  I usually do not take chances, so I try to be at the ticket counter at least one hour before departure time, just in case.  I am lucky most of the time–I’ve only missed three or four flights because the security clearance took longer than my estimate.

I’ve often wondered if this kind of routine harassment that has been going for years now does not constitute an infringement on at least one of the most important principles enshrined in the US Constitution: the freedom of movement, and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The notion of making society safer by subjecting people to extra screening is absurd.  In his book, “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them,” John Mueller describes this “security Industry” as the only beneficiary of this culture of fear.

“The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America,” opined Zbigniew Brzezinski in a Washington Post OpEd.  “Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum…The atmosphere generated by the ‘war on terror’ has encouraged legal and political harassment of Arab Americans (generally loyal Americans) for conduct that has not been unique to them,” he added. A case in point is the fact that an astronomical number of Americans, mainly Muslims, who are placed on the government’s watch list and are subjected to unwarranted delays and detentions while traveling or crossing US borders.

While the proponents of the policy that led to the establishment of the watch list argue that it is in place to protect national security, facts indicate that it used as a tool to punish dissenters.

“I was denied a boarding pass because I was on the terrorist watch list,” said Walter Murphy, a renowned constitutional scholar, a lecturer at Princeton University, and decorated Marine veteran.  Why? Because “in September 2006, (he had) given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution.”

Thomas Jefferson once said: “The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”

AHMAD AL-AKHRAS has a collection of his boarding passes for the past four plus years.  Most of these boarding passes were marked for “secondary screening.”  Dr. Al-Akhras is the Vice Chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR.  He can be reached at ahmad@alakhras.org

 

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