Sunday, February 07, 2010

Randall Amster: Homeland Insecurity -- Why "No-Fly" Just Doesn't Fly

Homeland Insecurity: Why "No-Fly" Just Doesn't Fly
by Randall Amster

Here's a quick quiz: What do Ted Kennedy, Cat Stevens and Nelson Mandela have in common? Okay, so that's an easy one for you folks with attention spans longer than it takes to type out a tweet. Indeed, all of these luminaries have appeared on the "No-Fly List," also known as the "Terrorist Watch List," which is used to prevent suspect persons from being able to fly on commercial aircraft in or out of the United States. The list was established after 9/11, and is estimated to contain perhaps half a million names, although its precise workings are shrouded by the vicissitudes of "national security."

Following the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it has been reported by CNN that "the US government has lowered the threshold for information deemed important enough to put suspicious individuals on a watch list or no-fly list, or have their visa revoked." Officials have stated that "the new standard is much lower than before December 25. For example, decisions could be taken to put someone on a no-fly list or a watch list based on one credible source, instead of the previous standard of using multiple sources." As Wired subsequently reported, not everyone on a "watch list" automatically winds up on the "no fly list," although the implications of being on any incarnation of these lists can include immediate arrest, the collection of biometric data, information being gathered about contacts, and notification of local "fusion centers" that bring together law enforcement agencies at all levels.

Potential abuses of such all-encompassing and secretive powers are obvious, ranging from relatively minor inconveniences such as travel delays to more serious breaches of basic constitutional rights; as the ACLU has observed, the No-Fly List "is so broad that it is certain to include many people who pose no danger and have done nothing illegal." At an even more basic level, practices and policies of this sort brush up against the spirit of the 1976 Church Committee Report on intelligence abuses in the US, which warned in unequivocal terms that "unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature." If anything, the ensuing decades have brought about a move away from the report's recommendations, and in the process have taken us closer to the predicted demise of democracy.

Obviously, these are crucial concerns that deserve to be explored at length. And yet, despite their pragmatic repercussions, there is a sense in which these issues can become something of a theoretical abstraction deployed in the service of expounding upon the Orwellian nature of our emerging surveillance society. As tempting as this is, I have more mundane notions in mind here. These policies impact actual people, their friends and families, and their ability to travel unfettered. They keep the populace in a state of fear and anxiety, grant clandestine officials control over our lives, and justify deeper incursions into not only our civil liberties but our capacities to live freely as well. In short, such policies are dehumanizing, rendering us mere data points in a complex matrix that exists beyond our purview.

One of these dehumanized points of data, however, now has a name and a face. A longtime friend has recently been informed that he is persona non grata in the US, having found himself on the No-Fly List without explanation or meaningful opportunity for rebuttal. Because of this, he has had to cancel a speaking tour here, in which he was to visit universities and community centers around the country, discussing his three new books as well as topics including social movements and political theory. It means that he won't be able to visit with friends and colleagues or to forge new connections here around his life's work. It also places a potentially permanent constraint on his travel to the US, and an official taint on his character as well.

His name is Gabriel Kuhn. I won't detail his entire biography here (you can read more about him on Wikipedia and on his PM Press author's page), but the basic gist is that he's an award-winning author who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. Kuhn has been politically active in ways consonant with his scholarship, focusing in particular on post-structuralism, social movements and anarchism. He was also a semi-professional soccer player and has lived in and traveled through numerous locales around the world. He presently resides in Sweden, where he has lived since 2006.

Beyond the mere biographical data, Kuhn is one of the kindest and most decent people you could ever hope to meet. I've known him for fifteen years and am proud to count him as one of my closest friends and colleagues. His gentle nature and good humor are evident, and he's a particularly thoughtful person when it comes to things people often take for granted, such as staying in touch across the miles and years, asking about professional activities and family news, and sharing personal stories of his life and travels. Kuhn has never been charged with a crime or an immigration violation, and is a highly respected scholar in the fields of radical politics and anarchist praxis, among other spheres of inquiry.

Yes, Kuhn is an anarchist. But don't get too excited about that - like most, he's an anarchist who believes in community and solidarity, not violence. He has a sophisticated outlook on reconciling the longstanding individual/community tension that lies at the heart of most social and political theories, as indicated by his statement regarding a recent controversy over tactics for change: "Anarchy can only work if the notion of individual freedom is accompanied by the notion of individual responsibility. Where the latter is missing, 'individual freedom' only becomes a pretext for bourgeois egoism, capitalist greed or - as in this case - disrespectful and self-centered conduct...." In other words, he believes that freedom necessitates responsibility if it is to be anything more than an excuse for self-indulgence and disrespecting others.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

More resources:

Here is Gabriel Kuhn's blog at PM Press

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