The No-Fly List Has No Chill: Here's Why
Security waits for no one. Phone security went from a simple passcode to full-on fingerprint technology. Home security can now be controlled remotely. Even my university keeps emailing me to change my password, to add more numerics and capitals to a password chain I forgot months ago. But despite this gloss-up of gizmos and their security measures, the no-fly list has remained relatively untouched since it was enacted in 2001, and continues to ruin flight plans on the daily. Just this week, Ontarian Khadija Cajee had to call in to make sure her child could board after his name had been flagged online. Syed Ahmed, age six, had already been flagged earlier in the year, presumably after he was caught casually gnawing his way through a box of Cheerios. When the people getting held up at check-in are below the recommended age for Lego’s play sets, perhaps the system is at fault.
— Khadija Cajee (@k_cajee) March 4, 2016
It’s not like the TSA has a great rep to begin with. Less than a month ago, actor/designer Waris Ahluwalia‘s New York Fashion Week was delayed when he was held for extra screening for wearing a turban. YouTube celeb JusReign underwent similar culture-blind screening, too. But the no-fly list deserves its own call out. Being on the no-fly list is like being in the shittiest black book in existence. First, the one and only way you’ll find out if you’re on the list is if you’re flagged when you try to check in. Not even high-rate travel agencies are adequately prepared for this hiccup. Does your name resemble those of the 50,000 or so people of interest—a list that generally features Muslim names? Well, I hope you brought several forms of ID, because other than that, your ability to challenge the nomination is null. It was chiefly for the reason that the list is secret and largely incontestable that a federal judge in Oregon ruled the no-Fly list as unconstitutional in a 2012 case. Unfortunately, constitutionality isn’t much of a concern these days, so the ruling had almost zero impact on everyday life. Still, it’s surprising for Obama, a president who has spoken out about decommissioning Gitmo and ending the Gulf War, to remain silent on such a controversial program.
Perhaps one reason people don’t want to challenge the list is because the list has grown too big for its britches. Before 9/11, there were only 16 people banned from flights in the US. That’s grocery list length. The no-fly list, meanwhile, is so large that it inadvertently catches politicians, celebrities, and even members of the military. The TSA flagged senator Ted Kennedy several times for matching with “T Kennedy,” who was the alias of a suspected terrorist. “T Kennedy?” That’s a stone’s throw away from “John Doe.” After he converted and took the name Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens got flagged too. And Daniel Brown’s return flight from a military tour in Iraq was held back because his name was on the no-fly list. Hopefully, rapper Danny Brown didn’t also have to deal with such nonsense.
Even former mayor of NYC, Rudolph Giuliani, one of the biggest trumpeters of post-9/11 reform, stood against the wide-berth of the no-fly list. In a 2008 op-ed, Giuliani said that the no-fly, and its bigger sibling (with nearly one million names), the Terrorist Watch List, needed a “serious cleanup.”
Unsurprisingly, these bloated, needlessly long lists waste a good deal of money. An article for Homeland Security Affairs gave 536 million dollars as a conservative estimate for the total cost of the no-fly list. Yet according to them, a more reasonable estimate would be around one billion. Given that the report was published in 2009, we’ll need to double that figure. And since there are additional lawsuits involved, you might as well just tack on a few zeros. Bottom line, the no-fly list has definitely left out some commas.
So, is it worth it? At the very least, the no-fly list is in need of reworking. Simply adding more context, like the suspect’s age or country of origin—anything to avoid false positives, really—would be an improvement. As it stands, the no-fly list seems like Kafkaesque bureaucracy—a list that you can’t know, can’t get off of, and can’t even clarify.
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