Editorial: Don’t use watch list to deny civil liberties

The Detroit News

American Muslims must be wondering which way to turn, with both the right and the left uniting to strip them of constitutional rights in response to the terrorist attack in Orlando.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are backing a measure that would limit the rights of those on the federal terror watch and no-fly lists to purchase firearms.

At first glance, it seems an encouraging example of rare bipartisan agreement on what might appear a common-sense gun law reform.

That’s until you consider the massive problems with the lists, both in terms of their arbitrary nature and the affront they present to civil liberties.

These lists are massive. The highly secretive terror watch list contains between 750,000 and 1.5 million names. The similarly opaque no-fly list numbers nearly 50,000.

Transparency is missing from both lists. The criteria for getting on them is not spelled out, those on the lists are not notified, and getting a name off the list can be nearly impossible.

There may be some reasonable action to take to assure that home-grown terrorists can’t walk into a gun store and buy weapons. But before that can happen, the FBI and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies must settle on vastly scaled down lists that contain the names of bona fide threats.

Trying to watch more than 1 million people is an impossible task. Culling the lists would have the added benefit of making sure those like Omar Mateen, the Orlando terrorist, don’t fall through the cracks.

Examples abound of law-abiding citizens learning their name is on one of the lists when they arrive at the airport and are denied access to a flight, and in some cases dragged away in handcuffs to be interrogated. Others have had their access to bank accounts shut down without knowing why.

Individuals apparently can get on the list by making an errant phone call, checking the wrong boxes on forms or making the acquaintance of someone who knows someone who is considered a threat. In April, the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations filed federal lawsuits on behalf of a group of American Muslims from Michigan who say they were unfairly added to the lists. One of the plaintiffs was 7 months old when she was determined to be a threat and subjected to chemical testing for explosives at the airport.

In short, these lists are a mess. They should not be used as the basis to deny a defined constitutional right, as legislation being pushed by congressional Democrats and backed by Clinton and Trump would do.

Even those who think the Second Amendment is obsolete or misinterpreted should worry about the impact on the Fifth and Sixth amendments. The constitutional right to due process goes out the window if, by simply having your name on a list, you can lose freedoms other Americans enjoy without a hearing or the ability to challenge the charges.

Taking this step could lead to all sorts of other deprivations. A right-wing group is already advocating that those on the terror watch list not be allowed to worship or congregate in mosques. So trample the First Amendment, too.

And Newt Gingrich, the normally rational former House speaker, is suggesting a return of the House un-American Activities Committee of the infamous Red Scare days to review all those on the terror watch list. The only good that could come of that is that at least those on the list would get an opportunity to hear and challenge the evidence against them. Currently, they are denied that basic right.

Lawmakers should find a practical way to ensure that potential terrorists cannot gain access to weapons. To do so authorities will have to develop a realistic watch list that doesn’t ensnare innocents among the would-be terrorists.