It's easier than you think for an innocent, patriotic American to end up on Homeland Security’s Terrorist Watch List. The Huffington Post says there are 7 ways to make the list. Numbers 1-6 involve communicating with, being with, or publicly sympathizing with (e.g. Facebook) terrorists. Lucky Number 7 is reserved for unlucky Americans.
I know two young MBA holders who landed their dream careers in Europe in the field of international business. But the dream turned to a nightmare without their knowledge, and they only found out when they tried to return home to the US. Both were hauled off to interrogation rooms, thoroughly searched and sniffed, and then questioned forever. It was shocking and scary. Based on the questions, one surmised that using Turkish Airlines, as an economical way to travel on vacation, may have alerted the TSA computer—even though the travel occurred more than a year before Turkey became the border in the fight against ISIL.
Turkish Airlines is part of the Star Alliance, so the lure was the ability to earn United Airlines Frequent Flier points. Plus those points could be converted to upgrades in Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner Business Class. Sometimes the Airline required a layover in Istanbul. That used to be a bonus. Time in Istanbul with a free hotel. Wow! But not these days. More than one layover in Istanbul evidently triggers a computer algorithm that turns a businessman into a suspected terrorist. And there’s nothing worse than being made to feel like a traitor. Wait. Oh yes there is: trying to get off the List.
The other young man, my neighbor, has a common name. An iconic American singer has it, but so does a suspected terrorist, apparently. That combined with his business travel between Dubai (our ally) and London (our ally) rapidly advanced him from the Terrorist Watch List to the No Fly List. Can you imagine what being on the No Fly List does to a young person’s career in international business? He’s done for unless he can get off the List. (He’s working on it.)
When I tell this story, Americans respond, “Well, I’m glad to hear my government is watching.” I’m glad, too. But I’m not glad that the system is so skewed it wastes time and money on innocent Americans. The government is acting under a “flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future." I researched some of the non-Middle Easterners who have actually flown with evil intentions. The Shoe Bomber and the Underpants Bomber had well known anti-West sentiments. Compare them with the two young men I know, both born in the US. (One is a practicing Christian; the other speaks out against gun violence. Not your typical terrorist material).
The system works when it catches suspects like the Illinois teen apprehended at O’Hare this month. But that kid was practically waving his own red flag. When the system runs amok, pre-schoolers and other innocents end up on a List. Let’s be cautious, but let’s not say it’s okay for average Americans to become collateral damage in the fight against terrorism.
If anyone you know makes the List, send them to the Travel Redress Program at trip.dhs.gov.