Why the No-Fly List Doesn't Fly

Innocent people don't know why they're on it and get off


Flying commercial can be a terrible hassle these days, but not for Steven Washburn. The people in charge of airport security have decided to spare him all the inconveniences. No taking off his shoes and belt, no putting his liquids in a plastic bag, no enduring a naked body scan. Oh, and one more thing: no flying.

Washburn is on the government's no-fly list. He doesn't know why, and the government won't tell him. Nor will it take him off. He's much like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who wakes up to find he has turned into a bug. There is no accounting for it and no escape. He may go to the grave without ever flying again — or learning the reason.

He's just one of the many people tabbed as potential terrorists who must be kept off the nation's airliners, including, at one point, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. An estimated 21,000 people now populate the no-fly list.

That number alone should raise serious questions about its accuracy. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there is no known instance of the Transportation Security Administration catching a terrorist trying to board a plane.

Remember all those sleeper cells of al-Qaida operatives, waiting for the right moment to strike? They never turned up either. Since 9/11, the number of terrorist attacks in the United States amounts to 127. If you believe there are 21,000 fanatics itching to blow up a regional jet, I have some Mitt Romney inauguration tickets to sell you.

But none of this is any comfort if you're one of the unfortunates who are not free to move about the country — or out of it. So the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court on behalf of 13 people (including four military veterans) who had flown for years only to show up at the airport and find themselves persona non grata. Each petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to be removed from the no-fly list — and each was rebuffed without explanation.

The ACLU is not dreaming big here. It doesn't ask that the government take these individuals off the list. It doesn't insist that they be exempt from monitoring. The only request is that they be told why they are deemed so dangerous and have the chance to show why they really aren't.

Being on the no-fly list is not a trivial matter. It prevents Washburn from seeing his wife, a Spanish citizen who lives in Ireland. Some people never fly. But for anyone who does so even occasionally, it is a serious burden to be told: You can drive, or you can stay home.

The "right to travel" is not just a pleasant notion; it's a constitutional guarantee. Although it's not mentioned in the text, the Supreme Court has long treated it as thunderously obvious. In 1900, it said that "the right to remove from one place to another according to inclination is an attribute of personal liberty" firmly "secured by the Fourteenth Amendment and by other provisions of the Constitution."

The document also guarantees the right of due process, which those on the no-fly list can only dream about. The decision is made in secret by unseen officials who provide no reasons, entertain no disputes and allow no independent review. You could get a fairer hearing from a crowd toting tar and feathers.

This is only one of the defects in the system. A bigger one is why the list is needed at all. Since the 9/11 hijackings, various steps have been taken to prevent a repetition —reinforcing cockpit doors, putting thousands of armed marshals on flights, screening liquids and patting down travelers. Passengers, meanwhile, will no longer sit quietly if someone becomes a problem.

The Transportation Security Administration feels so confident about its ability to defuse genuine risks that it's decided to allow small knives on board aircraft. But if the government can keep troublemakers from employing the weapons they need, the troublemakers will have only pitifully ineffectual options — which means they aren't likely to fly in the first place.

The nice thing about these other security measures is that they work not only against anyone who is deemed dangerous but also anyone who is not. And they impede the guilty without inflicting serious harm on the innocent.

Maybe the people who compile the no-fly list can say the same thing. But I don't really want to take their word for it. If Ted Kennedy were around, he wouldn't either.

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  1. Washburn is on the government’s no-fly list. He doesn’t know why, and the government won’t tell him.

    Sounds like the entitled Steven Washburn thinks he should be able to fly through the government’s air just because he doesn’t have a Muslim name. Quite frankly, he sounds like an anti-government militia terrorist and I am going to assume that’s state agents’ secret reason for putting him on the list. I for one am glad he’s not allowed to fly his racist anti-Obama shampoo bottles over my head.

    1. Washburn is on the government’s no-fly list. He doesn’t know why, and the government won’t tell him.

      I presume the Supreme Court has come up with a better reason than “Fuck you, that’s why” that this doesn’t violate the 6th Amendment right to question witnesses against you.

      1. The reason is simple and unassailable: Washburn is a potential terrorist.

        1. Everyone is a potential anything. So is Obama, but you don’t see him banned from Air Force One.

      2. I presume the Supreme Court has come up with a better reason than “Fuck you, that’s why” that this doesn’t violate the 6th Amendment right to question witnesses against you.

        Aaaaaaaaand you’d be so wrong.

      3. Well, they have a better reason, but if they told you what it was they’d have to kill you.

  2. And the ideological contortionist has outdone himself this time. I’m surprised Chapman’s not thrown his back out trying to fellate the state while still trying to seem like he’s for (a certain, arguable) civil liberty.

    High layery Us.

  3. You know who else made decisions in secret by unseen officials who provided no reasons, entertained no disputes and allowed no independent review…

    1. The Almighty God. And Ming the Merciless. And Aaron Sorkin.

      1. That’s not true. Abraham was able to talk God down from 50 sinners to 10 sinners when debating whether or not to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Abe lost.

        Moses argued with God over how to punish the Israelites who worshiped the Golden Calf. Moses won that argument.


          1. Didn’t Cecil B. DeMille film that argument between Moses and God?

            1. But not in 3-D. Mean old Hollywood won’t make new Bible pictures so illiterates and people without cable can learn about Jesus.

                1. Does it include the deuterocanonical books? And the extra books in the Orthodox bible not even in the Catholic bible?

      2. Also, Ming the Merciless didn’t make any decisions in secret!

    2. The College of Cardinals?

    3. Magneto?

  4. No Fly List? Get some priorities!
    It looks like KM-W and the DC reason staff are about to be forced on the no food truck list

    1. You can post it in every thread, but you’re not going to get a hat tip.

  5. So is it Tuttle or Buttle?
    Nevermind, just lock them all up.

    ‘Brazil’ is a documentry.

    1. So is Robocop and Highlander 2

  6. He knows why he’s on the list. That is not to say he should be, or can get off it, but he knows why he is.

    1. I was, for a brief time, on the ‘Selectee’ list, which meant I had to check in only at the airport (no ‘print your boarding pass at home’ for me) and was stopped for extra screening at the gate during boarding for every flight for about six months, around 2004.

      I have no idea why it happened, and, after I submitted a formal complaint (through the TSA’s website) it stopped. Several months later I received a letter (paper, that is) from the TSA denying I had ever been on any list.

      I now have a ‘trusted traveler’ credential, and don’t even have to take my shoes off.

      We live in a weird and wonderful world.

      1. He converted to Islam after 9/11, spent time in the Middle East, was anti-war, etc. To be clear, I’m not defending the reasons he was put on the list or his inability to fight being on the list, but it’s a bit disingenuous to say he doesn’t know why he’s on the list.

        1. My only guess as to why I was on the ‘selectee’ list was that, about a month before, I had to make an emergency change to a flight itinerary, coming home the day after I left, instead of four days after, because of a family emergency.
          But that is pure speculation. I actually have no idea at all.
          He could very well also have no idea at all why the government became interested in him. Given a choice between believing the TSA and believing a random citizen, I know what I’d choose.

          1. He converted to Islam after 9/11, spent time in the Middle East, was anti-war, etc. It flies in the face of reason to belief has has no idea.

    2. My then two-year-old son was on the no-fly list a ways back…white and all that with no strange name (Adam) and our surname is a pretty basic English name. I figured there must have been a militia clinger with the same name.

  7. You could get a fairer hearing from a crowd toting tar and feathers.

    Fortunately, no one is on the (egregiously underutilized) no-tar-and-feathers list.

    1. Pistole and Napolitano should be on the mandatory tar-and-feathers list.

  8. They probably don’t want to admit they selected names from social media randomly to populate the list, to make it look like they were doing something other than using government computers and internet connections to populate it with pictures of cats.

  9. A friend of mine was once strip searched because his name was on a watch list. My friend, at the time, was 17. He is a very very ginger. Like…sun a mortal enemy, freckles everywhere, red hair. Looks absolutely nothing like a terrorist.

    1. I’m pretty sure there are more than a few Gingers on Englands anti terror radar

      1. As well they should be.

        Who would want to get trapped in an enclosed box with a soulless being? Haven’t you seen Turbulence 4: Red Skies?.

    2. Like…sun a mortal enemy, freckles everywhere, red hair. Looks absolutely nothing like a terrorist.

      Sounds like the stereotype of an IRA solider for sure.

    3. If he believes the government ought to follow the U.S. Constitution he IS a terrorist according to the Department of Homeland Slavery.

  10. Hey, the first rule of the no fly list is you don’t talk about the no fly list

  11. Hey, is anyone who wears sweat pants on the no-fly list?

    1. Only if you take them off while boarding the plane.

  12. So, who comes up with all that crazy stuff man? Wow.


  13. “He’s much like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who wakes up to find he has turned into a bug.”

    If you reference a Kafka work, shouldn’t it be “The Trial” or “The Castle?”

    This really bugs me.

    1. I second the motion.

  14. I see what you did there

  15. My ex-girlfriend’s sister, a Canadian citizen, was on one of those lists – whenever she showed up on a US airport trying to visit her boyfriend in Alabama, she was put through hours of interviews, her bags were searched, and whatever else.

    That woman had an uncommon last name, thus it is not likely that there was merely a confusion of identity with an actual terrorism suspect with the same name.

    It is a total mystery to me how she could have ended up on such a list.

  16. Saying the No Fly List is unnecessary because we have the TSA is a disappointing argument. BOTH assault the right to travel.

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  18. Good article, but it would be nice if Mr. Chapman explicitly named the current administration that is putting people on a potential terrorist list, but with no right to appeal. Some transparency.

    Mr. Chapman names the current administration when he thinks it is doing something positive. Why not name it now when it clearly stomps on basic civil liberties?

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  20. Mr. Chapman, thank you for the 14th Amendment 1900 reference, it is what we need to cite in this insane new world. Prior to reading this I had to rely on the 1st A (right to petition, which implies a right to get to the point of petitioning) and my favorite, the 9th A (right everything else not given away by “authorization”).

    And to the TSA thug who responded to my evident disgust at his existence when traveling a while back “what’s his problem?” to my travelling companions the answer is “Oh, him?, He still believes in the written Constitution”.

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