Be Careful With Those Secret Watchlists, Congressman

by , June 24, 2016

The horrifying June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is just the sort of tragedy that demands government action. The death toll – whether it was the worst mass shooting in US history depends entirely on your definition of the former – was 49 people; around 50 were injured.

Government rode into action after Omar Mateen’s savagery. The people, such as they are, followed with demands that we do something, and do it quickly. No matter the tragedy – real or bizarre moral panic – elected officials and their constituents demand a fix. Unfortunately, quick government fixes for serious problems tend to look like alcohol and drug prohibition, the dangerously flexible Afghanistan invasion’s Authorization for Use of Military Force, or the PATRIOT Act.

And on Wednesday, some 40 House Democrats decided to sit on the floor and protest the lack of a vote on gun control legislation that they support. Parts of this legislation is a disturbingly bipartisan support for a denial of Second Amendment rights if someone is on a watchlist.

Regardless of your stance on the broader issue of gun control (I’m against it), the dismantling of gun rights without due process via a would-be buyer’s status on the no-fly list, or other terrorism watchlists should be something of concern to all Americans. It is in fact so concerning that the good people at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) don’t support this legislation. It has also been critiqued by the left-leaning folks at outlets as diverse as The Intercept and Gawker.

The day of representative civil disobedience was brought to you by Congressman John Lewis, who was once placed on the no-fly list himself. It took him a good while to get off of it, thereby proving that it takes a concerted effort for even the most privileged among us to affirm their innocence. (Lewis was joined by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, so insert your no-drive list jokes here). It’s a bit harder for nobodies who go to the airport, and learn that they mysteriously can’t be allowed on an airplane, but don’t know why. 

More frustratingly still, Lewis also was a bona fide Civil Rights era bad-ass, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and who was a Freedom Rider that was beaten for his trouble. (It doesn’t hurt to remind people that King himself had guns and armed guards for part of his career, and his application for a concealed carry permit was rejected.) Lewis, it seems, should be able to remember that once upon a time, gun control was a purposeful effort to disarm minorities, and now those minorities are more likely to be Muslims, but the principle of due process should still be upheld.

In short, a man who has done incredible things in his life lead a plush, catered government protest which advocated for denying rights of people because the government put them on a list. But as Sen. Dianne Feinstein put it, Americans must “prove they’re innocent” if this happens.

Hundreds of thousands of people with “no known terrorist affiliation” are on the watchlist. Some 20,000-plus people are on the no-fly list. It wasn’t until last year that Americans were even granted the right to be told that they really were on the list. In spite of Feinstein’s blithe assurances that Americans can prove their innocence, that is not particularly easy to do. And it’s a great way to profile Muslims, especially if they happen to share a name with someone who is an actual, clear threat to safety and security of Americans. Not to mention, people on the list are barred from American airspace, which is what happened to several Americans and resident aliens whom the ACLU represented in a recent lawsuit. Being unable to visit or even fly over America is potentially an enormous hindrance to your ability to travel, work, or study.

Fundamentally, it’s been not that many years since the Bush administration – when Democrats may have caved on privacy and civil liberties issues, but they at least pretended to be in support of them, if only by contrast with the right. Yet, both politicians and people seem to have forgotten entirely how easily rights were given up, and how much that was supposedly regretted afterwards. They have forgotten, indeed, that 9/11 was terrifying, and that in the moment, it wasn’t as easy to see how much America was letting slide in terms of rights and privacy.

The Orlando shooting is scary, too. It is especially scary for members of the LGBT communities, who have only now gotten their equal rights after decades of living in the shadows (well, centuries, really). Scary isn’t an excuse to keep building up the national security state.

Her stance on gun control isn’t clear, and perhaps it isn’t the point, but Chelsea Manning wrote one of the best responses to the Florida massacre. She noted that gay clubs are a haven for many people who are scared and uncertain about their identities, and that to have that violated is a particularly jarring shock.

But Manning – currently imprisoned under several stupid, draconian laws that ostensibly keep Americans “safe” – knows enough to be cautious. She writes that the tools that we are told will be only used against the worst of us – the most violence-prone supporters of wicked causes – will never be so narrowly focused. She writes that “The refrains of ‘safety and security’ have, for many years, been used as a tool by the powerful to justify curtailing civil liberties and emboldening backlash against immigrants, Muslim people and others.”  That means, as nice-sounding as these solutions can be, and as sad as we might be about a particular tragedy, “the response can be more dangerous than the attack.”

Government has a lot of trouble with the tasks it sets out for itself. However, curtailing our rights to privacy and due process en masse is all too easy. But doing so won’t stop people who are determined to harm innocent people.

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

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