Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Homeland Security: Why “No-Fly” Just Doesn’t Fly

By Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | News Analysis
Febraury 3, 2010

Here’s a quick quiz: What do Ted Kennedy, Cat Stevens and Nelson Mandela have in common? Okay, so that’s an easy one for you folks with attention spans longer than it takes to type out a tweet. Indeed, all of these luminaries have appeared on the “No-Fly List,” also known as the “Terrorist Watch List,” which is used to prevent suspect persons from being able to fly on commercial aircraft in or out of the United States. The list was established after 9/11, and is estimated to contain perhaps half a million names, although its precise workings are shrouded by the vicissitudes of “national security.”

Following the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it has been reported by CNN that “the US government has lowered the threshold for information deemed important enough to put suspicious individuals on a watch list or no-fly list, or have their visa revoked.” Officials have stated that “the new standard is much lower than before December 25. For example, decisions could be taken to put someone on a no-fly list or a watch list based on one credible source, instead of the previous standard of using multiple sources.” As Wired subsequently reported, not everyone on a “watch list” automatically winds up on the “no fly list,” although the implications of being on any incarnation of these lists can include immediate arrest, the collection of biometric data, information being gathered about contacts, and notification of local “fusion centers” that bring together law enforcement agencies at all levels.

Potential abuses of such all-encompassing and secretive powers are obvious, ranging from relatively minor inconveniences such as travel delays to more serious breaches of basic constitutional rights; as the ACLU has observed, the No-Fly List “is so broad that it is certain to include many people who pose no danger and have done nothing illegal.” At an even more basic level, practices and policies of this sort brush up against the spirit of the 1976 Church Committee Report on intelligence abuses in the US, which warned in unequivocal terms that “unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature.” If anything, the ensuing decades have brought about a move away from the report’s recommendations, and in the process have taken us closer to the predicted demise of democracy.

Obviously, these are crucial concerns that deserve to be explored at length. And yet, despite their pragmatic repercussions, there is a sense in which these issues can become something of a theoretical abstraction deployed in the service of expounding upon the Orwellian nature of our emerging surveillance society. As tempting as this is, I have more mundane notions in mind here. These policies impact actual people, their friends and families, and their ability to travel unfettered. They keep the populace in a state of fear and anxiety, grant clandestine officials control over our lives, and justify deeper incursions into not only our civil liberties but our capacities to live freely as well. In short, such policies are dehumanizing, rendering us mere data points in a complex matrix that exists beyond our purview.

One of these dehumanized points of data, however, now has a name and a face. A longtime friend has recently been informed that he is persona non grata in the US, having found himself on the No-Fly List without explanation or meaningful opportunity for rebuttal. Because of this, he has had to cancel a speaking tour here, in which he was to visit universities and community centers around the country, discussing his three new books as well as topics including social movements and political theory. It means that he won’t be able to visit with friends and colleagues or to forge new connections here around his life’s work. It also places a potentially permanent constraint on his travel to the US, and an official taint on his character as well.

His name is Gabriel Kuhn. I won’t detail his entire biography here (you can read more about him on Wikipedia and on his PM Press author’s page), but the basic gist is that he’s an award-winning author who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. Kuhn has been politically active in ways consonant with his scholarship, focusing in particular on post-structuralism, social movements and anarchism. He was also a semi-professional soccer player and has lived in and traveled through numerous locales around the world. He presently resides in Sweden, where he has lived since 2006.

Beyond the mere biographical data, Kuhn is one of the kindest and most decent people you could ever hope to meet. I’ve known him for fifteen years and am proud to count him as one of my closest friends and colleagues. His gentle nature and good humor are evident, and he’s a particularly thoughtful person when it comes to things people often take for granted, such as staying in touch across the miles and years, asking about professional activities and family news, and sharing personal stories of his life and travels. Kuhn has never been charged with a crime or an immigration violation, and is a highly respected scholar in the fields of radical politics and anarchist praxis, among other spheres of inquiry.

Yes, Kuhn is an anarchist. But don’t get too excited about that – like most, he’s an anarchist who believes in community and solidarity, not violence. He has a sophisticated outlook on reconciling the longstanding individual/community tension that lies at the heart of most social and political theories, as indicated by his statement regarding a recent controversy over tactics for change: “Anarchy can only work if the notion of individual freedom is accompanied by the notion of individual responsibility. Where the latter is missing, ‘individual freedom’ only becomes a pretext for bourgeois egoism, capitalist greed or – as in this case – disrespectful and self-centered conduct….” In other words, he believes that freedom necessitates responsibility if it is to be anything more than an excuse for self-indulgence and disrespecting others.

In this sense, Kuhn’s values are decidedly anti-terroristic. While he explores historical and contemporary phenomena such as piracy and radical environmentalism in his work, he sees these as complex responses to repressive and destructive official policies. His focus unflinchingly remains on those struggling from “below” in our global system, a point strongly suggested in his reply when I asked whether he wanted me to write about his present dilemma:

“Obviously, this is not about some terrible injustice being done to me (I have a comfortable life here in Stockholm, can travel to many other countries, etc.), but the whole thing points at some more general and far more serious problems:

1) “The complex of immigration and ‘national security’: Again, in my case, no personal harm is done. In other cases these things mean separation from loved ones, exclusion from educational and economic possibilities, and in the worst cases torture and death….

2) “The power that authorities get in the name of national security: The most troubling aspect of the no-fly list is that, all in the name of national security, you will receive zero information on why you’re on the list, since when, how you can get off it. Nothing. Even if you file a complaint, they will only promise to ‘look into the matter.’ They do not promise to provide any information at the end of the process. The possible consequences of this are obvious. Radicals can be put on the list at random and then stay there; it can undermine communication, exchange, and networking of activists and social movements to a frightening degree.

3) “The fact that measures like the no-fly list do not only concern US Americans, but others too – many who are not even allowed to visit. I think this is an aspect that’s often overlooked in the US debate on anti-terrorism legislation which (understandably) focuses very much on the issue of US citizens’ rights.”

Contrast Kuhn’s nuanced analysis with the self-congratulatory and monotone rhetoric of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which administers the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists:

“The ‘No-Fly’ list has been an essential element of the aviation security – it keeps known terrorists off planes. TSA and our Federal partners, including the intelligence and law enforcement communities, have worked together to combine our collective knowledge into one list that protects our country, transportation systems, and airline passengers. TSA has dedicated staff to review and scrub the existing No-Fly list and ensure all nominees meet the standing criteria. This review will establish the baseline for new records being added to the system and will significantly improve the quality of the data.”

The TSA states that its mission is to protect “the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” It utilizes a system based on “layers of security” that includes the obvious airport checkpoints and also “intelligence gathering and analysis, checking passenger manifests against watch lists, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public.” The agency operates largely under the cloak of “national security” – meaning, as the ACLU notes, that it is impossible to know “who is or is not on these lists” and that certain people will be denied freedom of movement without due process or effective means to contest their status.

Against this, we are supposed to be comforted by the TSA’s assertion that their system deters “known terrorists” and that all of the people on the No-Fly List “meet the standing criteria.” Even putting aside repeated and bizarre “false positives” such as Ted Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, there are further accounts that cannot be squared with any sort of logic or good sense:

“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied repeatedly that there are children on the infamous ‘no-fly list.’ Ever since little Mikey Hicks was in the news the other day about his consistent ‘pat downs’ at the airport, it has been brought to the public’s attention that the FBI and TSA need to review their security precaution. TSA has vehemently defended their program saying that there are NO children on the no-fly list. But no one could address why Michael Winston Hicks has been getting frisked since he was 2 years old…. Now if what TSA says is true, why is it that the airlines don’t see him and immediately know he is not a terrorist? Also, why is it that the airlines consistently harass this little boy? And why is it that several incidents have occurred in the past?”

Undoubtedly, the task of balancing security with liberty is among the most daunting of our time. The problem with archaic and secretive mechanisms such as the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists is that they are rife with potential for abuse and perversion. Profiling people based on ethnic criteria, harassing activists and exacting a toll on political adversaries are all-too-real manifestations of these policies. The case of Gabriel Kuhn, which quite likely is but one of many, has all the makings of someone being persecuted for the nature of their views rather than the reality of their conduct. In typical fashion, despite his obvious “sadness and disappointment” at being denied entry into the US, Kuhn still sees the potential for something good to come of this situation: “If this particular case can help draw some attention to these issues, at least it serves a purpose.” With the state of security rapidly eroding the fabric of liberty, we should all hope that such episodes cast a critical light upon the shadows of fear and control.

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