“Right now, people on the no-fly list can walk into a store and buy a gun,” Obama said in a recent weekly radio address. “That is insane.” Makes sense, right?
Sure it does. If you uncritically accept the validity of the “no-fly” list in the first place.
If you’re prepared to accept the judgment of President Obama and his White House staff as to what qualifies as a threat to national security, you’re good-to-go with the No-Fly list. But what if your standards are different from theirs? Of course, you might say: “The federal government has to protect people from acts of terrorism. A lot of terrorism happens on airplanes.” True enough. But what are the criteria for getting on a no-fly list?
From an article in 2014 cited by CNN.com:
The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.
The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a 166-page document issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center, spells out the government’s secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings. The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place entire “categories” of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. It broadens the authority of government officials to “nominate” people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as “fragmentary information.” It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted.
CNN.com also reports:
While the criteria for adding individuals to the list remains murky, one thing is for sure: it’s still a lot easier to get on the list than get off it. Even in clear cases of mistaken identity or clerical blundering, a name can linger in the system for years.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the federal government has been able to create its very own enemies list.
As I wrote in a recent column, the federal government as we know it, particularly under Obama, has adopted the kinds of practices for which Richard Nixon was driven from office, back in 1974. There are two fundamental, rights-violating problems with the “no-fly” list as we know it. One, it’s not objective. Two, it’s not even law; it’s simply an edict.
Laws tell an individual, in concrete and understandable terms, what he or she may or may not do, and what the consequences are if he or she fails to do what the law requires. Do any of us really understand what’s required to get on a “no-fly” list? And do any of us have hope of getting off such a list if even by bureaucratic “accident” we were placed on it?
People are put on the no-fly list without the burden of proof normally required by a legal procedure. Nobody seriously objects to it. Why? Because anybody rational wants to avoid terrorism, especially while flying on an airplane. However, terrorism cannot be justification for violating rights, particularly in such a blatant way.
Preventing innocent people from being harmed by violent people is absolutely a legitimate purpose of government in a free society. But shouldn’t the government be obliged to require evidence? Shouldn’t the procedures for identifying terrorists be something other than “unilateral” White House designations? I am so sick of hearing politicians (both parties) claim we cannot militarily fight back against terrorist-sponsoring countries because “that’s not who we are.” (The same logic, by the way, would have prevented defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan back in World War II.)
But what about the government of a supposedly free country being able to place citizens that a president’s staff deems “a threat” on a no-fly list? Compiling watchlists without any requirement of facts or proof? Is this really who we are?
If it is, then we are no longer a free country. Neither in principle nor, it seems, in practice.