A nation founded upon such noble ideas as individual liberty and respect for privacy must never allow those sacred principles to be tarnished by the prying eyes and empire-building efforts of bureaucrats.
Reports surfaced this week that the U.S. government has been collecting personal information about travelers entering the country, without their knowledge, and assigning them terrorist ratings. Travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments. The information, which can be shared with all levels of government, including state and local, is retained for 40 years. Existence of the program was only recently confirmed after its details were leaked.
How many terrorists this program has identified is not disclosed. How many law-abiding individuals have had their privacy invaded without their knowledge can probably be counted in the millions.
I outlined my thoughts on this program earlier here. The constant accumulation by governments everywhere of more and more information about ordinary individuals ought to be a concern to all who value rights and freedoms. But it should be especially concerning to Americans, whose country has stood out as a shining example for civil rights to the rest of the world for so many years.
There can be no doubt that governments must aggressively fight terrorism and threats to civilized society. But there is an all too disturbing propensity among bureaucracies to expand their reach and power just because they can, to cover their tracks when mishaps occur and to forget they are there to protect freedom and individual rights, not undermine them.
This is exactly what happened with Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who in 2002 was pulled off a plane in New York City, accused of having ties to al-Qaeda and shipped to Syria, where he was held and tortured for 10 months. An independent inquiry, while exonerating Mr. Arar, found that Canadian government figures and agencies at all levels had passed on inaccurate information about him to U.S. authorities and made a less than vigorous attempt to the correct the inaccuracies once they became known.
What American authorities did to Mr. Arar is a story of almost unimaginable horror which included deportation, detention, imprisonment in a foreign country and torture. This is what befalls innocent people when governments collect, give out or act upon the wrong information. Mr. Arar remains to this day on the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list.
The U.S. terrorist rating system is an affront to civilized people in a democracy. One of the salient features that distinguishes a democracy from a dictatorship is that in the former, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them. In the latter, the government knows everything about its citizens and permits little to be known by them. That distinction is quickly becoming blurred in the United States. This latest episode in the erosion of civil rights and privacy is part of a much larger trend that is sweeping America, as I wrote here.
A nation founded upon such noble ideas as individual liberty and respect for privacy must never allow those sacred principles to be tarnished by the prying eyes and empire-building efforts of bureaucrats. To allow otherwise is to concede to the terrorist threat. The executive branch of government has permitted something that should not have occurred in the first place; the legislative branch failed in its oversight duties to bring it to public attention earlier, if not abolish it entirely, and the American people have failed to register their feelings of outrage about this kind of big brother-like intrusion. If America cannot produce a modern day Paul Revere to raise a voice of alarm to the march of repressive government action, where will it be raised?
It is for these reasons that Finlay ON Governance has chosen the U.S. government’s terrorist rating program and its, until recently, secret collection of data from law-abiding individuals as the outrage of the week.