My name is on a list of real and suspected enemies of the state and
I can't find out what I'm accused of or why, let alone defend myself.
Heading for Oakland from Seattle to see my grandkids last week, the Alaska
Airlines check-in machine refused to give me a boarding pass. Directed to the
ticket counter, I gave the agent my driver's license and watched her punch keys
at her computer.
Frowning, she told me that my name was on the national terrorist No Fly Watch
List and that I had to be specially cleared to board a plane. Any plane. Then
she disappeared with my license for 10 minutes, returning with a boarding pass
and a written notice from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirming
that my name was on a list of persons "who posed, or were suspected of
posing, a threat to civil aviation or national security."
No one could tell me more than that. The computer was certain.
Back home in Seattle, I called the TSA's 800 number, where I rode a merry-go-round
of pleasant recorded voices until I gave up. Turning to the TSA web site, I
downloaded a Passenger Identity Verification form that would assist the TSA
in "assessing" my situation if I sent it in with a package of certified
documents attesting to who I was.
I collected all this stuff and sent it in. Another 20 minutes on the phone
to the TSA uncovered no live human being at all, let alone one who would tell
me what I'd presumably done to get on The List. Searching my mind for possible
reasons, I've been more and more puzzled. I used to work on national security
issues for the State Department and I know how dangerous our country's opponents
can be. To the dismay of many of my more progressive friends, I've given the
feds the benefit of the doubt on homeland security. I tend to dismiss conspiracy
theories as nonsense and I take my shoes off for the airport screeners with
I'm embarrassed that it took my own ox being gored for me to see the threat
posed by the Administration's current restricting of civil liberties. I'm being
accused of a serious--even treasonous--criminal intent by a faceless bureaucracy,
with no opportunity (that I can find) to refute any errors or false charges.
My ability to earn a living is threatened; I speak on civic action and leadership
all over the world, including recently at the US Air Force Academy. Plane travel
is key to my livelihood.
According to a recent MSNBC piece, thousands of Americans are having similar
experiences. And this is not Chile under Pinochet. It's America. My country
With no real information to go on, I'm left to guess why this is happening
to me. The easiest and most comforting guess is that it's all a mistake (a possibility
the TSA form, to its credit, allows). But how? I'm a 63-year-old guy with an
Anglo-Saxon name. I once held a Top Secret Umbra clearance (don't ask what it
is but it meant the FBI vetted me up the whazoo for months). And since I left
the government in 1980, my life has been an open book. It shouldn't be hard
for the government to figure out that I'm not a menace to my country.
If they do think that, I can't see how. Since 1983 I've helped lead the Giraffe
Heroes Project, a nonprofit that moves people to stick their necks out for the
common good. In the tradition of Gandhi, King and Mandela, that can include
challenging public policies people think are unjust. In 1990, the Project's
founder and I were honored as "Points of Light" by the first President
Bush for our work in fostering the health of this democracy. I've just written
a book about activating citizens to get to work on whatever problems they care
about, instead of sitting around complaining.
I'm also engaged in international peacemaking, working with an organization
with a distinguished 60-year record of success in places ranging from post-war
Europe to Africa. Peacemakers must talk to all sides, so over the years I've
met with Cambodians, Sudanese, Palestinians, Israelis and many others. You can't
convince people to move toward peaceful solutions unless you understand who
As I said, I'm not into conspiracy theories. But I can't ignore this administration's
efforts to purge and punish dissenters and opponents. Look, for example, at
current efforts to cleanse PBS and NPR of "anti-administration" news.
But I'm not Bill Moyers and the Giraffe Heroes Project is not PBS. We're a small
operation working quietly to promote real citizenship.
Whether it's a mistake or somebody with the power to hassle me really thinks
I am a threat, the stark absence of due process is unsettling. The worst of
it is that being put on a list of America's enemies seems to be permanent. The
TSA form states:
The TSA clearance process will not remove a name from the Watch Lists. Instead this process distinguishes passengers from persons who are in fact on the Watch
Lists by placing their names and identifying information in a cleared portion
of the Lists.
Which may or may not, the form continues, reduce the airport hassles.
Huh? My name is on a list of real and suspected enemies of the state and I
can't find out what I'm accused of or why, let alone defend myself. And I'm
guilty, says my government, not just until proven innocent or a victim of mistaken
Sure, 9/11 changed a lot. Tougher internal security measures (like thorough
screenings at airports and boundary crossings) are a dismal necessity. But,
in protecting ourselves, we can't allow our leaders to continue to create a
climate of fear and mistrust, to destroy our civil liberties and, in so doing,
to change who we are as a nation. What a victory that would be for our enemies,
and what a betrayal of real patriots and so many in the wider world who still
remember this country as a source of inspiration and hope.
I don't think it's like Germany in 1936 -- but, look at Germany in 1930. Primed
by National Socialist propaganda to stay fearful and angry, Germans in droves
refused to see the right's extreme views and actions as a threat to their liberties.
And don't forget that frog. You know that frog. Dropped into a pot of boiling
water, he jumps out to safety. But put him into a pot of cold water over a steady
flame, he won't realize the danger until it's too late to jump.
So how hot does the water have to get? When the feds can rifle through your
library reading list? When they can intimidate journalists? When a government
agency can keep you off airplanes without giving you a reason? When there's
not even a pretense of due process? We're not talking about prisoners at Guantanamo;
this is you and me. Well, after last week, it sure as hell is me and it could
be you, next.
Oh, yes -- Washington State just refused to renew my driver's license online,
a privilege given others. I had to wait in line at the DMV before a computer
decided I could drive home. This conspiracy theory debunker smells a connection
to the Watch List.
I know what I will do. If my name is not removed completely from the Watch
List in 45 days I will use every resource I've got to challenge the government
of a country that I love and have served. In all the press about identity theft,
I find myself railing at having my identity as a patriot stolen--by my own government.
This must not stand.