Steve Chapman

Americans have always treasured the freedom to pick up and go anywhere they please. Our forebears had to travel to get here, often had to travel more after they arrived and sometimes moved on to uncharted territories out West only to return East. No one stopped them, whatever direction they were going.

They had the good fortune to live and migrate before the creation of the all-encompassing national security state. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans woke up to find that their freedom to travel was not a fundamental right but a vaporous privilege, bestowed by the government and revocable at its whim.

Or rather some Americans came to that realization: people who tried to board commercial airliners only to be turned away without an explanation or much recourse. They had entered the murky labyrinth of the federal no-fly list.

One victim was Gulet Mohamed, who came to this country as a boy from Somalia with his immigrant parents and became a citizen. In 2011, he took a break from college to see a little of the world and improve his Arabic, spending time in Yemen, Somalia and Kuwait.

The latter country is where things went wrong. Upon trying to renew his visa, he was seized, beaten and tortured under interrogation. When his family bought him a plane ticket home, the Kuwaitis took him to the airport -- where he was barred from boarding. Not until several days later, after a lawyer challenged his exclusion, was he allowed to fly back to the United States.

Once here, he went to court, arguing that he had been placed on the no-fly list, for reasons unknown to him, in violation of his constitutional right to travel, which has been repeatedly recognized by the Supreme Court. The government refused even to say whether Mohamed was on the no-fly list but insisted that even if he was, his right to travel was not abridged.

In the incomparable logic offered by the Justice Department, he was perfectly free to enter the United States -- even if he was not allowed to get on the plane that would bring him here. If he could have found some other way to get back, the government claimed, he would have been greeted with open arms.

Secrecy is the standard mode of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which compiles the list. Not only does it refuse to notify people of their inclusion, but it refuses to say how many names the list contains. As of 2012, though, the number reportedly amounted to 21,000.

Steve Chapman

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

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