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What Freedom? The No-Fly List and the "War on Terror"

July 14, 2010

The “War on Terror,” immigration, and female circumcision -- three issues that provoke intense debate but are seldom considered together. The story of Adama Bah not only shows how the three issues can be inter-related but illustrates how national security policies that supposedly protect the nation render raced and sexed bodies especially vulnerable. Last Monday, Democracy Now! interviewed Adama Bah, a Guinea-born resident of the United States and her ACLU attorney, Ben Wizener. Representing Bah as well as several other citizens and legal residents, the ACLU is filing a national class-action lawsuit to challenge the government’s ‘’no-fly” list. The list consists of names of persons barred from boarding flights to or from the U.S. and those flying within U.S. air space. Bah was heading to El Paso, TX for vacation, when she was detained at La Guardia Airport, NYC when checking in for her flight. Having previously flown, Bah did not know that her name was on the list and was never given an explanation by the FBI or the Transportation Security Authorities as to why her name is on it. As Wizener explains, there are no clear instructions given on how to petition for removal of one’s name -- even as reasons for why one’s name is put on the list are seldom forthcoming. Other plaintiffs who have been barred from returning to the U.S. include military veterans, citizens and legal residents. Several years ago, when she was 16 years old, Bah became the face of a controversial immigration debate when she faced deportation. Bah came to the U.S. as a child with her mother and did not know of her immigration status until she was arrested for overstaying her child visa. Deemed as an “imminent threat” to national security by the FBI, Bah garnered greater media attention when it became known that her family had received financial help from an Islamic political activist and director of a human rights organization, Mauri Saalakhan, who had assisted with the family’s needs after her father, the main income earner, had been deported. Bah was ultimately released and gained political asylum status, her lawyers arguing that returning to her country of birth would expose her to the risk of undergoing female circumcision, a procedure her mother had undergone in unsanitary conditions. The victory, however, came at a cost. In addition to causing great strain on her education and her family’s income, Bah had to wear an ankle bracelet that tracked her movements and observed a government-mandated 10pm curfew. Bah’s story emphasizes the need for government accountability and transparency, especially for its actions in fighting the “war on terror,” one that tends to terrorize certain groups without clear justification. With no regard to due process, stories like Bah’s beg the question as to whose freedom is the government restricting in the purported interest of protecting the nation's safety.