Steve Chapman
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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.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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