Security theater

Airline captain, lawyer, child on terror ‘watch list’:

James Robinson is a retired Air National Guard brigadier general and a commercial pilot for a major airline who flies passenger planes around the country.

He has even been certified by the Transportation Security Administration to carry a weapon into the cockpit as part of the government’s defense program should a terrorist try to commandeer a plane.

But there’s one problem: James Robinson, the pilot, has difficulty even getting to his plane because his name is on the government’s terrorist “watch list.”

That means he can’t use an airport kiosk to check in; he can’t do it online; he can’t do it curbside. Instead, like thousands of Americans whose names match a name or alias used by a suspected terrorist on the list, he must go to the ticket counter and have an agent verify that he is James Robinson, the pilot, and not James Robinson, the terrorist.

“Shocking’s a good word; frustrating,” Robinson — the pilot — said. “I’m carrying a weapon, flying a multimillion-dollar jet with passengers, but I’m still screened as, you know, on the terrorist watch list.”

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates more than 1 million names have been added to the watch list since the September 11 attacks.

It isn’t like this system is hard to beat. Buying a ticket with your initials rather than full first name evades the list, and a terrorist need only buy a ticket for a short flight a few days before an attack to be sure he’s gotten past security.

Furthermore, even if it worked, this would only protect us against attacks which are unlikely to recur. The watch list, like the war on liquids and the ban on my Leatherman Micra, does nothing to increase security, it makes everyone’s life harder, and distracts security staff from the work of identifying real threats.

Why do it then? Because it gives the appearance that security has been increased. Whether it actually changes anything is irrelevant to too many people.

In other news:

Besides the airline pilot, there’s the James Robinson who served as U.S. attorney in Detroit, Michigan, and as an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration; and James Robinson of California, who loves tennis, swimming and flying to the East Coast to see his grandmother.

He’s 8.

The third-grader has been on the watch list since he was 5 years old. Asked whether he is a terrorist, he said, “I don’t know.”

Though he doesn’t even know what a terrorist is, he is embarrassed that trips to the airport cause a ruckus, said his mother, Denise Robinson.

Denise Robinson said that no one in the government even told her her son is on the watch list but that it wasn’t hard to figure out. Checking in at curbside three years ago, the family was told they couldn’t get boarding passes and were hustled to the ticket counter.

She said the ticket agent made a number of phone calls and kept asking which among her husband and two sons was James.

“And all of a sudden he says, ‘How old is he?’ ” Robinson recounted. She said she responded numerous times, “He’s 5.”

This is how our transportation security community spends its time.


  1. #1 atxcats
    August 20, 2008

    Sigh, the terrorists really have won, haven’t they.

  2. #2 Phil
    August 20, 2008

    As the article said, once the entire population of the US ends up on the list, then perhaps we can all just go Greyhound.

  3. #3 Dunc
    August 21, 2008

    Why do it then? Because it gives the appearance that security has been increased.

    Plus it gets people used to the idea that you can be singled out for different treatment because your name is on some secret government list, and that you just have to put up with it.

  4. #4 Julie Stahlhut
    August 21, 2008

    And how much of this could have been prevented, several years ago, by an emphatic “Sorry, sir, you can’t carry box cutters through the security check?”

    In 2001, it was nobody’s job to actually enforce the rules that security personnel were supposedly following. Now it’s everyone’s job to enforce petty regulations that give only the appearance of security.

  5. #5 Joel
    August 21, 2008

    Back in 1979 our Platoon Sargeant was detained for a period of time in Bangor Maine when we were returning from Germany on a military chartered private aircraft. (We left the country on a military transport.) His name was on the terrorist watchlist back then.

    Names are useless for identification. Should look for some type of globally unique means of identification in the future?

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