The No-Fly List: Orwellian or Kafkaesque?

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A few weeks ago, Rehan Motiwala tried to board a flight home to Los Angeles. Here’s what happened when he changed planes in Bangkok:

Airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

….Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

Obviously Motiwala wasn’t on the no-fly list when he left the country last year, and obviously he was on the list when he tried to return. The lesson is pretty clear: be careful who you talk to, citizen. You really don’t want to get on our list, do you?

The basic outrage here is obvious: in a liberal democracy, no citizen should be subjected to this kind of treatment without due process. And the no-fly list not only doesn’t incorporate due process, it goes out of its way to be the most Orwellian possible denial of due process imaginable. You are on a list. Maybe. But we won’t tell you. How can I get off the list? Well, who says you’re on a list in the first place? But I can’t fly. Sorry, we can’t comment on that. Rinse and repeat.

And here’s what I don’t get: If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what’s the point? I guess the LAX option doesn’t give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn’t cooperate. Welcome to America.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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