Posted by: bkivey | 10 May 2010

Shooting Up the Terror Watch List

A column by New York Times writer Gail Collins published on 7 May highlights a piece of legislation in Congress that would deny individuals on the FBI’s Terror Watch List  the ability to buy a firearm. Although she doesn’t come right out and say so, Ms. Collins seems to be in favor of the bill. She does take the obligatory snarky shot at those who don’t reside in oh-so-sophisticated New York City:  

The National Rifle Association, the fiercest lobby in Washington, grades every member of Congress on how well they toe the N.R.A. line. Lawmakers with heavily rural districts would rather vote to legalize carrying concealed weapons in kindergarten than risk getting less than 100 percent.

One of the points of Ms. Collins column is that those who don’t support this legislation are somehow supporting terrorist activity, as this passage demonstrates:

“Let me emphasize that none of us wants a terrorist to be able to purchase a gun,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who nevertheless went on to argue against allowing the government to use the terrorist watch list to keep anyone from being able to purchase, um, a gun.

By definition a ‘terrorist’ is someone who has committed an act of terror. Inclusion on the FBI Terror Screening Database (TSDB) requires a much lower standard of proof, so the two are not equivalent.  As the Agency points out on this site, the standards for inclusion are:

 Per HSPD-6, only individuals who are known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism are included in the TSDB.

The key phrase here is “reasonably  suspected”. I don’t know what the Agency’s standard of proof is, but I would hope that it is at least as stringent as the legal definition of  ‘reasonable doubt’, but it could just be whatever some bureaucrat decides it is, and that’s the problem. By the FBI’s own admission there are over 400,000 individuals on the TSDB and, due to the use of aliases,  the number of names exceeds 1,000,000, and they won’t tell you if you’re on it. It’s a safe bet that given human nature in general and large organizations in particular that some of those names belong to innocent people. Ms. Collins blows this off as a mere inconvenience, but it’s far from that. If you are on the TSDB you’re going to have a very hard time getting on an airplane and you may be denied employment. There is an appeals process but it takes weeks and no small amount of effort on the part of the individual to complete.

I am not ‘for’ terrorists buying firearms any more than I am ‘for’ people blowing up buildings or kicking puppies, but neither do I support the curtailment of my rights as an American based on somewhat arbitrary standards, especially standards set by a Federal law-enforcement agency that has been used for political purposes in the past. 

Folks of Ms. Collins political stripe vehemently oppose capital punishment because, as Justice Brennan wrote in In re Whinship:

 “. . . a fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.”

I suppose that conviction goes out the window if the same reasoning is used to support an idea to which one is personally opposed, like gun ownership. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has pointed out, there are a number of individuals who are using this bill as a stalking horse to promote their own agendas. It is common for people of every political persuasion to do this, but it is uncommonly dishonest and cynical to say one is looking out for the common good when one really wants to push a personal agenda.


Here is a report from the Department of  Homeland Security on the effects of the No Fly List and similar databases on civil liberties that is well worth reading.

Word Watch

There is a word that I would dearly like to take out behind the barn and shoot (unless, of course, I was on the Terror Watch List), and that is the use of the word ‘dialogue’ as a verb, as in “I will dialogue with you.” Aaaargh! Whenever I hear someone say that or see it in print it makes me think that they are a complete idiot and I stop listening to/reading them. Plato’s characters didn’t ‘dialogue’ with each other, they engaged in a dialogue. If you’re looking for new ways to express yourself, remember that the thesaurus is not an extinct animal.




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