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The 'Shoo, fly' List

By Terry Joseph
January 02, 2004

If the Foreign Affairs Ministry actually believes its letter demanding apologies from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over detention of two nationals will scare Big Brother into submission, then Government has secured yet another slot in the finals of the 2003 Joke of the Year contest.

The Ministry's "harshly worded letter" sprang from last week's detention in the US of two local airline pilots, separate events that jointly earned star billing in all news media, as though the fliers were ruthlessly abducted rather than pulled in for questioning by a lawful agency; the same FBI this country has often asked for help with other unrelated investigations.

Those detentions resulted from an update of "the no-fly list," a roll-call of names circulated by the US Transportation Administration, a division of Tom Ridge's Homeland Security network, which subjects listed persons to intense scrutiny, once they are found at US airports. The list was raised after terrorists slipped into that country and bombed The World Trade Center and part of The Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

With its terror alert raised to high-level shortly before Christmas, the US list was further revised and the national airline advised that two of its pilots were now included, albeit after they had taken off bound for the US.

Consequently, on landing in Miami and New York (respectively) the pilots were taken in for interrogation and tracing, a process that lasted many days.

Now, the US Transportation Administration has several lists. There is also one for no-fly items, which includes sharp objects, explosives and firearms.

Personal searches for regular passengers have been expanded to include belts, hats and shoes and last week lengthened by another few "potentially dangerous" items, prohibiting even things we take for granted, like 2004 almanacs.

While it must be traumatic for the pilots' families and friends, who would like the names of loved ones swiftly cleared, Government must know that the US is unlikely to treat these episodes as urgent or, for the long term, think them inimical to the preservation of good diplomatic relations with Trinidad and Tobago.

And while it may be merely procedural, sending a stern letter to the FBI only makes us appear bothersome. In fact, it is my guess that the Ministry's protest will enjoy little more than nuisance value and may put this country on a "shoo, fly" list; resulting in cavalier swatting of more important issues down the road.

Indeed Government's puerile posture has misled the public into mouthing claims of US vindictiveness and other such assertions predicated on the perception that we represent a formidable antagonist, one that country was just waiting to get back at for our stance on the International Criminal Court, hiring Cuban doctors or cosying up to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The conspiracy theory gained ground this past week on the silly presumption that the US slipped a couple of names of Trini pilots onto its no-fly list, just so it could teach Trinidad and Tobago a lesson, although commentators failed to note that, from inception, a far greater number of American nationals have been inconvenienced by the no-fly list than the sum of visitors from all other countries.

Indeed, Americans have even more dramatic stories about the list. Describing the move as "The New McCarthyism," The Progressive magazine, an American publication, reported last April that Alia Kate, 16, a Milwaukee high school student was one of 20 members denied travel to Washington DC on a Midwest Express flight, because they planned to take part in a Washington DC peaceful protest action. Among the barred group were a priest and a nun.

When they were cleared after 12 hours of questioning, the events for which they were bound had gone.

For Dianne Henke, a volunteer with Peace Action and organiser of another out-of-State protest, the experience was far more distressing as she was, right up to departure time, preaching the virtues of democracy and its facility for using enshrined rights to mount non-violent objections to troubling legislation.

As reported in the widely-read e-zine (2002:11:15), Barbara Olshansky, assistant legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, was at a Newark International Airport counter when security officials pulled her out of the line for a search and then, in full view of other travellers, ordered the lady to pull her pants down. She and her fellow directors have been put through the wringer on several subsequent flights.

Since 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the FBI for what it deemed unlawful detention of citizens and has an online complaint form for those wishing to join the litigation; even as Mr Ridge's boys argue that intelligence gathering indicates an imminent threat on the scale of The World Trade Center bombing.

Air France cancelled six flights to the US on Christmas Eve after being advised by the FBI to have armed marshals accompany both their passenger and cargo schedules, as airborne "chatter" indicated that one of their planes might be used as a missile against American targets.

To therefore take the view that Trinidad and Tobago was singled out for special persecution is at least silly and Government should be wary about fuelling such misguided patriotism, lest we become the first country to occupy space on the "shoo, fly" list.

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