Monday, April 09, 2007

Walter Murphy

Many bloggers are criticizing the Bush administration for political profiling, based on this story from Walter Murphy, Princeton professor:
"On 1 March 07, I was scheduled to fly on American Airlines to Newark, NJ, to attend an academic conference at Princeton University, designed to focus on my latest scholarly book, Constitutional Democracy, published by Johns Hopkins University Press this past Thanksgiving."

"When I tried to use the curb-side check in at the Sunport, I was denied a boarding pass because I was on the Terrorist Watch list. I was instructed to go inside and talk to a clerk. At this point, I should note that I am not only the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (emeritus) but also a retired Marine colonel. I fought in the Korean War as a young lieutenant, was wounded, and decorated for heroism. I remained a professional soldier for more than five years and then accepted a commission as a reserve office, serving for an additional 19 years."

"I presented my credentials from the Marine Corps to a very polite clerk for American Airlines. One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. "That'll do it," the man said."
But as Orin Kerr points out, Senator Ted Kennedy was stopped at airports several times "because the name 'T. Kennedy' has been used as an alias by someone on the list of terrorist suspects.

To which I'd add: An anti-war activist named Jan Adams made headlines in 2003 because she was stopped at airports, although it turned out that this was likely because "reservations systems were rounding up anyone with a name similar to 'J. Adams,' including a Virginia attorney (J. Christian Adams) and a young woman (Jodi Adam)."

Similarly, one of the judges for whom I clerked (David Nelson), as well as many other David Nelsons around the nation, was stopped at airports for the same reason.

Anyone else detect a pattern here? Several common names -- "T. Kennedy," "J. Adams," "David Nelson" -- have been selected for extra screening, possibly because someone with terrorist ties has a habit of picking a non-descript alias. Perhaps that's the real explanation as to Mr. Murphy as well.

Indeed, given that there are hundreds of thousands or millions of people out there who have marched in an anti-war rally, or posted an anti-war message on a blog, or written a letter to their congressman, etc., then if people with suspected terrorist ties have used aliases based on common American names, it is probably inevitable that their aliases will seemingly match the real names of some anti-war individuals. Thus, a handful of Adamses or Nelsons or Murphies who happen to be anti-war will find that they are in for some extra screening at airports. But that doesn't mean that they are being targeted for their political views.

This is not to say that the no-fly list is managed well, or even that it's a good idea -- it seems to sweep in a lot of obviously innocent people, and unless there is some good evidence that it has ever stopped an actual terrorist, I'm not sure what the point is.

UPDATE: A commenter at Volokh's blog points to the fact that a dozen "Robert Johnsons" have been stopped at airports.


Blogger SeeW said...

My husband is always stopped everytime we fly on the first leg of a trip in the U.S. He has a common name and no reason has ever been given to us. It has caused some interesting experiences at the airport. It is also a pain in the neck as we can never check in online and print boarding passes for ourselves. We don't trust the government to change this for us, so we will just continue to be interrogated.

11:38 AM  

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