Thursday, March 13, 2008

Are You On the Terrorist Watch List?

I wrote the other day about the fact that more than one American in a hundred is locked up in prison or jail. Though we talk here mainly about issues having to do with sex education and the treatment of sexual minorities, I tend to think that the locking up of millions of citizens is not an unrelated topic. There is an underlying theme of judging others, and especially judging others as morally deficient and then treating them as something less than human.

Here's another thing. The ACLU has a new report out, with an unsettling twist:
Why are there so many names on the U.S. government's terrorist list?

In September 2007, the Inspector General of the Justice Department reported that the Terrorist Screening Center (the FBI-administered organization that consolidates terrorist watch list information in the United States) had over 700,000 names in its database as of April 2007 - and that the list was growing by an average of over 20,000 records per month.

At that rate, our list will have a million names on it by July. If there were really that many terrorists running around, we'd all be dead. ACLU Watch List Counter

I figure there are about three hundred million people in this country. A million names, that's about a third of a percent. Two and a half million imprisoned, another million suspected of being terrorists -- what kind of a place is this?

It's the kind of place where people judge one another, treat one another inhumanely, demonize those who are different from themselves.

This might be the inevitable outcome of the "mixing bowl" experiment that was the United States of America in its first two hundred years of existence. Maybe people just can't tolerate differences. I remember a while back when some Muslims were mad about some Danish cartoons, and a Danish guy told a reporter he didn't care what they thought because "they aren't Danish." I've been to Denmark, there are plenty of Muslims there, but he's right, they aren't Danish. We would never say that in our country, "they aren't Americans." If they were born here, raised here, earned their citizenship, then yes they are Americans, you don't have to be descended from Vikings or something. And so we have a lot of different kinds of Americans. Maybe people just aren't made to be able to handle that.

The theme that runs through all of this is dehumanization. If you can label someone as evil you don't have to treat them as human beings, you can harden your sympathy against their suffering. And a lot of Americans find it easy to hang a label on those who are different from them, to suck the life out of them, draw them in black and white and treat them like things.
Terrorist watch lists must be tightly focused on true terrorists who pose a genuine threat. Bloated lists are bad because
  • they ensnare many innocent travelers as suspected terrorists, and
  • because they waste screeners' time and divert their energies from looking for true terrorists.

Small, focused watch lists are better for civil liberties and for security.

The uncontroversial contention that Osama Bin Laden and a handful of other known terrorists should not be allowed on an aircraft is being used to create a monster that goes far beyond what ordinary Americans think of when they think about a "terrorist watch list."

This is not just a problem of numbers. The numbers are merely a symptom. What's needed is fairness. If the government is going to rely on these kinds of lists, they need checks and balances to ensure that innocent people are protected.

These are some big numbers. There is no way the government can keep track of 700,000 people, or a million, and there's no way all those people are terrorists or are tied to terrorism or know anything about it. It's just insanity.

This article goes on to tell about a couple dozen people who can't fly in the US because they're on this stupid list. Oh, and people on the list who are actually dead, like Saddam Hussein and fourteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
I don't know. I was stopped because I had a stonyfield yogurt in my carry on. I didn't realize that yogurt constituted a security threat but I know now!.

March 14, 2008 7:20 AM  

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