Who's Watching the Watch List?
Graham, AlterNet. Posted July 7, 2005.
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
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
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
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 a smile.
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 and yours.
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
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 they are.
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.Stick Your Neck Out: A Street-smart Guide to Creating Change in Your
Community and Beyond (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005). He is also president of
the Giraffe Heroes Project and a former US diplomat.
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 identity--but forever.
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.
John Graham is the author of
bare facts of the story are these: Azim Khamisas 20-year-old son, Tariq, was making
a delivery for a San Diego pizza parlor when he was shot and killed in a failed robbery
attempt by a gang. The killer was Ples Felixs 14-year-old grandson and ward, Tony
Hicks, who was sentenced as an adult for the murder and is now imprisoned.
could have been the end of the story. But it was only the beginning, as you might guess
from the photo above. Thats Khamisa on the left, Felix on the right.
a banker whose family had fled violence in East Africa years earlier, was devastated by
his sons death, yet he reached out to the killers family, realizing that they
too had lost a boy.
Felix, a former Green Beret who is a program manager for San Diego County, was devastated
by what his grandson had doneon the first night he had ever defied his grandfather
and left the house to meet with the gang. Felix went alone to a gathering of the grieving
Khamisa family, telling them of his own grief over what his grandson had done.
established a foundation in his sons memory; and he and Felix formed an alliance
that transforms their losses into a resolve to see that other families do not suffer such
were victims on both ends of the gun, says Khamisa. Ples and I have become
Khamisa and Felix go again and again into schoolstogetherto talk to students
about Tariqs death and about gangs, to help the kids talk about the awful effects of
violence on their own lives, and to affirm that they will avoid violence themselves. Kids
hearing the two mens story and seeing them working together also get an
unforgettable picture of a response to violence that is not more violence and hatred.
on their work in schools, Khamisa says, Every time you talk one youngster out of
committing homicide, you save two.
Felix and Khamisa are speaking out for restorative justice, a way of dealing
with criminals that helps lawbreakers understand what they have done and make restitution
to those they have harmed, rather than just sending them to prisons. The way we deal
now with lawbreakers does nothing for those they have injured, for reforming the criminal
or for repairing society, says Ples Felix. Further information on their work can be
found at http://www.tkf.org