Freedom To Travel Is a Right Americans Lost

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it did not intend to appeal last month’s court decision which removed Rahinah Ibrahim from the "No-Fly list" – making her the first person in years to be taken off that bureaucratic black-hole relic of the Bush war on terror.

This is great news for Ibrahim. But she has been battling for seven years to win this victory for herself. The rest of the however many thousands of folks on that list remain there, with no clear road out of that swamp. And that’s only a small aspect of the myriad ways in which Americans and visitors to America are harassed, oppressed and impeded during their travels.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a study that harshly critiqued the U.S. government’s various watch lists, including the "no-fly" list that Ibrahim found herself on. Some of the problems the ACLU highlighted were the secrecy and the lack of an appeals process for folks who find themselves flagged at airports or downright prevented from flying. They estimate up to a million people are on such lists, and this includes US citizens. People who suspect they are on the no-fly list can only go to the airport and see if they’re prevented from flying. But they still may not get a straight answer from the government, or have any way to get off the list. There is no other way to discover whether a typo, knowing the wrong person or being from the wrong country put them on a list that radically decreases their right to travel.

During the last week of March, the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) official report to Congress said the agency wanted armed police officers to be nearby during peak passenger hours. Considering the state of cops in this country, and the complete lack of rights travelers – especially at the borders – have, this is a terrible idea. Yes, last November someone targeted and killed a TSA agent. That’s unfortunate. But the bureaucratic, thoughtless, petty TSA does not need any more power than we have already let it take. We do not want air-travelers who attempt to film their pat-downs or express objections to their treatment fearing that if they reach in their pockets, some itchy-fingered cop will get worried.

Around 2010-2011, there was a sustained TSA backlash, mostly led by libertarians and conservatives. Disappointingly, liberals were often skeptical and dismissive of this movement, calling it "Astroturf" or the outrage of the angry white right-winger who already has everything else in life. Outlets such as the pop-liberal-feminist blog Jezebel stressed this narrative, even while vaguely remembering that they were supposed to express sympathy towards women upset by TSA agents copping a feel. (Interestingly, the more non-ideological horror stories that appeared in the news, the more they seemed to remember they were supposed to be on the side of the folks – or more likely the women and children – who were being professionally assaulted.)

Even some libertarians are guilty of downplaying this issue as minor. Writing in her Thoughts on Liberty blog, editor-in-chief Gina Luttrell – perhaps in response to the more daring, earlier piece by one of her writers that suggested the shooting of TSA agent Paul Ciancia had an element of "blowback" – opined in December that being mean to TSA agents was bad advertising for libertarianism and bad humanitarianism. Perhaps. But Luttrell went too far by implying that the "whining" people outraged at the TSA were invariably middle- or upper-class people who are actually less oppressed by the state than the agents making 30K a year.

The ACLU, in its new report, highlights the suffering of people who have been unable to travel by air: this includes the loss of a job and the inability to visit family for joyous or tragic occasions. Luttrell notes that she took trains for years in order to protest the TSA, but having the money and the time to take a leisurely Amtrak route is actually a greater luxury than flying. It takes 60 hours to take a train from Pennsylvania to California, and it can easily cost more than a bargain flight. People who cannot take off that much time from work or need to get to a location right away are out of luck if they don’t wish to fly. Not to mention, the TSA has mission-crept right into Amtrak stations. Their appearances are much more random than those at airports, but this still does not bode well even for the "right" to choose between a groping or a long train ride. And that mission creep by the TSA is yet another sign that when we yield some "small" rights, the state will be hungry for more of them sooner than we think.

Just because TSA agents aren’t the Schutzstaffel, and just because some of them may not live a life of luxury, doesn’t make them not part of the problem. This is something on which left, right, and libertarian could all agree – our basic right to move is being impeded. But instead we get pieces like this one by a Gawker writer who more or less blamed Ron Paul, Andrew Napolitano, and Alex Jones for the November murder of agent Ciancia. (Because according to the good liberals at Gawker, rhetoric kills but the state doesn’t.)

Where did we get the idea that traveling is not a right? Folks wringing their hands about the "unsecured" border have a memory of only a decade or two. Before the 20th century, there were few restrictions on immigration to the US And once again, the U.S.-Mexico border is an alarmingly lite-on-Fourth-Amendment zone for both travelers and American citizens. Restrictions on travel is a bad habit Americans are now almost completely used to.

After all, how do we know when a country is truly, irredeemably totalitarian? One of the best yardsticks is whether its citizens are free to leave or not. We know people fled from East to West Germany, in spite of the strong possibility they’d be shot by border guards. We know hundreds of thousands of people have escaped from Cuba, some in boats that barely qualified as seaworthy. And we know that unknown thousands of North Koreans flee anywhere – China is a Mecca of freedom for them – to escape their death-cult of a nation. Why would we want our country to resemble those places, even the littlest bit? The bad-ass, individualist nation that is America in theory would not tolerate it. The America of big government and empire – America in practice – does.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.