What is the Purpose of the No-Fly List?

Why do we need a no-fly list if all passengers are carefully security screened and unable to take banned items onto a flight?

You probably know about the US no-fly list.  It is a list of many tens of thousands of names of people (back in 2007 it seems to have had more than 34,000 names) who – due to suspected (but not actual or proven) terrorist links, are prohibited from flying on planes within, to, or from the United States.

Actually, the no-fly list is even more pervasive than that.  The US also refuses overflight rights to any plane, operated by any airline from any country, that wishes to enter US airspace, no matter how briefly on its journey, even though the airline is flying from one non-US city to another non-US city, and is not a US airline, if the flight has a person on it who is on the US no-fly list.

The most recent example of someone on the no-fly list was a US citizen, born and bred in Southern California, who found he could not fly home after completing a masters degree at a college in Costa Rica.  The only way he could return home was to fly to Mexico, thereby avoiding the US no-fly prohibition, and then walk across the border at Tijuana.  Details here.

It appears that his travel to Egypt to support the revolution there a year back – a revolution which our own government openly supported too – may have caused him to change from being an ordinary citizen to now being an ultimately dangerous person who can’t be trusted on any plane.  But he doesn’t know for certain, and the authorities aren’t telling him why he is on the list.

Imagine if you found yourself on the no-fly list.  It would be life-changing, wouldn’t it.  And this major change in your life would happen without notice, without warning, without judicial review, and with no reasons given, either before or after your placement on this list.  Getting off the list would be difficult at best, particularly because you don’t know why you are on it.

But let’s put all this to one side (for now).  Instead, may we ask a simple but essential question.  What is the point of the no-fly list?

Is it to protect everyone else on the plane?  Or is it to punish the person so listed?

If it is to protect everyone else on the plane, what does that imply?  Does it mean that this person, with possible suspected but unproven links to terrorist organizations, is so dangerous that they might credibly have some secret and impossible to detect means of hijacking and/or crashing the plane?  A vulnerability that no level of TSA screening can detect?

Is there such a vulnerability, that a single person could exploit?

If there is, then our concern should not be with the thousands of people on the no-fly list.  It should be with everyone else that isn’t on the no-fly list, and making sure that they don’t also have this super-secret but ultra-deadly means of taking out a plane with them, too.

Can not the latest pat-downs, X-ray machines, behavior detection officers, and all the other 20 or more claimed layers of TSA security that the TSA likes to boast about succeed in finding any such vulnerabilities?  Can’t they simply rename the ‘no-fly’ list to the ‘really intimate pat-down’ list and give anyone on the list a tremendously thorough intimate search before then allowing them to fly?

And – the opposite of that question :  Are we now being subjected to extremely intimate poking and squeezing ‘pat downs’ (they are much more than just pat downs these days) for no good purpose?  If these poke/squeeze assaults on our intimate regions don’t actually work, why are they being done at all?

The truth of the matter has to be that the no-fly list is another bit of security farce that infringes on our freedoms while not making us the slightest bit safer.

There is no credible suggestion that just because a person is arbitrarily placed on this list they are possessed of super-powers that can enable them to single-handedly take over and take down a plane.  The no-fly list is nothing more than a bureaucratic ‘punishment’ of quite draconian severity, being arbitrarily applied to both US and non-US citizens alike, for capricious and secret reasons that, if we were to fully understand them, probably seldom or never make any sense.

If a person is this seriously dangerous, why have they not been charged with a crime – and, not just charged, but convicted?  Why are we leaving them free in our country?

It is hard to think of a more un-American thing than the no-fly list.  America is the country that invented air travel, which ‘perfected’ it, made it affordable, and made it a key part of the lives of many/most of its citizens.  Due to the great physical size of our country, it is also a country where air travel is an essential means of transportation.  It is not reasonable or realistic to say ‘We’re not letting you fly from Los Angeles to New York and back, but you’re still free to travel there any other way you wish’, because how else can you travel from coast to coast in under a day and for as little as $200 each way?

The US is also – as far as we are aware – the only country that also arbitrarily and without any official judicial process deprives people of the right to fly any time the security forces choose to – oh, the only country, except also for Canada.  You can travel all through Europe, through the former Soviet Union, through repressive dictatorships and religious autocracies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, through countries torn by civil strife, revolution and internal dissent, and never confront another no-fly list.

In particular, imagine if some of the world’s largest countries, over which many flights must pass – countries such as Russia and China, both of which could conceivably create no-fly lists of people opposed to their present political structures – were to also create capricious no-fly lists of people they didn’t like and refuse to allow people on those lists to be on flights that passed over their countries.

If you’ve ever spoken out about Russian corruption, or the Tibet issue, you could risk being on such a list and might find your ability to normally travel to Europe or Asia disrupted.  What recourse would you have?  None – which is the same as the recourse that foreigners outside the US essentially have when it comes to getting off the US no-fly list.

Not allowing some people to fly in no way makes the rest of us safer.  It just increases the antipathy between our government and ourselves.  No-fly lists should be discontinued.

By all means, extend the ‘watch list’ concept, and even have ‘watch super closely’ lists.  But a no-fly list that both convicts and penalizes people without any due process or trial is completely wrong.

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