Ordinarily, I'm not one to advocate boarding a flight to London wearing a button that says, “Suspected Terrorist.” Nor, ordinarily, would I champion refusing to remove the button and unnerving the pilot and crew to the point they turn the plane around and return to the gate. Nor, under normal circumstances, would I approve of lecturing foreign airline officials about the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or of insisting one should be able to repeatedly enter planes until some pilot finally agrees to fly with a passenger wearing a “Suspected Terrorist” button on board.
But these are extraordinary times, calling for extraordinary measures.
So I'm going to go on the record as giving civil-liberties gadfly John Gilmore a hearty back-slap for his July 18 escapade at San Francisco International Airport, when he gave British Airways officials fits over what he considered a harmless, inch-wide disc. “I would be hard pressed to come up with a security measure more useless and intrusive than turning a plane around because of a political button on someone's lapel,” Gilmore said in an Internet posting. He added that the pilot “said I would endanger the aircraft and commit a federal crime if I did not take it off. I told him it was a political statement and declined to remove it.
“They turned the plane around and brought it back to the gate, delaying 300 passengers on a full flight.”
British Airways spokeswoman Diana Fung says her company tried to reason with Gilmore: “We told him that we could get him on the next flight if he put the badge into the baggage. Safety and security is the No. 1 priority for us. We have a duty to take care of all our passengers.”
Gilmore's been doing this sort of thing for years. He was handcuffed and interrogated by airport police seven years ago for refusing to show identification papers. He's currently suing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, two airlines, and various other agencies for making people show IDs to fly. So, ordinarily, just as a matter of convenience and customer comfort, it might be reasonable to throw this kind of pain-in-the-ass off the plane.
But in times like these — with the Bush administration engaged in an all-out, anti-civil-liberties siege — Gilmore's ordinarily dismissible kind of nuisance harassment becomes heroic, even urgently necessary. Gilmore's “Suspected Terrorist” button may have been narrowly aimed at his own personal obsession, airline security. But outrages in the name of anti-terrorism have spread far beyond America's air terminals.
In case no one noticed — and Americans don't really seem to be noticing — our republic is quietly evolving into a state of official lawlessness. A new U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General's report details beatings and other abuse meted out on people of Arab appearance who were arbitrarily arrested following Sept. 11, 2001. According to the report, available on the DOJ IG's Web site (www.usdoj.gov/ oig/), detainees were held without learning what they were being charged with. The FBI, meanwhile, did little to sort real terrorism suspects from people who were inadvertently picked up as part of the sweep. Once in jail, many of these “suspects” were shackled, beaten, and held without cause for weeks, in some cases months, according to allegations detailed in the report.
Meanwhile, upcoming military tribunals for Afghan war prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay will be conducted under rules so antithetical to Western ideals of jurisprudence that American legal organizations have warned their members that it would be immoral to participate in such proceedings. The arrests, and the tribunals, have made an international mockery of the U.S. justice system. In the eyes of the world, we're evolving the legal system of a despotic sheikdom. Yet Ashcroft has told journalists he will seek to further expand the USA Patriot Act. And last week in San Francisco, Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, announced military-civilian anti-terrorism exercises scheduled to take place later this month near Las Vegas. Sponsored by the Defense Department, the exercises are dubbed “Determined Promise,” and will involve soldiers working alongside local emergency rescue workers in response to an imagined bioterror attack.
Quaintly, McHale saw fit to assure his audience of state legislators that America is a “representative democracy,” and that he had no current plans to have the U.S. Army go around arresting people.
The dais obstructed Mr. McHale's hands, so I couldn't see whether his fingers were crossed.
According to the urban-legends-debunking Web site Snopes.com, it's not true that Denmark's King Christian X wore a Star of David armband during World War II in defiance of the Nazis. That legend arose after the Danish people made other, less symbolic, equally heroic efforts to save Jews.
Perhaps it's time to launch an American legend — more powerful, because it happens to be true — that has citizens protesting government anti-terrorism abuses by announcing solidarity with people who've been imprisoned, killed in foreign wars, or otherwise harmed in the name of fighting terrorism. It's time for more people to recognize that, as our government fails in pursuit of the real culprits behind 9/11, it's turning too many of the rest of us into perpetual suspects.
So I urge you all to take direct and irritating action. Clip SF Weekly's version of Gilmore's button, which he says was dreamed up by a political activist named Emi Koyama, paste it to a disc of cardboard, stick a safety pin through it, and wear it on your chest. Wear it on visits to the Federal Building, on air flights, during visits to your in-laws. Perhaps if enough people do this, our government will start getting the message that it's not OK to turn America into a 1950s-era rural Louisiana parish in the name of combating terrorism.
If Gilmore's experience is any guide, such awareness-raising might not be as trying as it initially seemed. In an e-mail message, Gilmore told me he was able to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to London two days after he was thrown off the British Airways plane.
Did Virgin personnel allow him to wear the “Suspected Terrorist” button?
“Yes, they did. No trouble at all,” he responded from his European vacation spot. “Bravo to Sir Richard Branson and his staff.”