Last week, the U.S. government deported the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, now named Yusuf Islam, on grounds that he posed a terror threat. That seems far-fetched, especially given that the former pop singer had strongly condemned the attacks of Sept. 11 and other attacks on innocent people. But officials insisted that they had good grounds for their decision.
"The intelligence community has come into possession of additional information that further raises our concern," a spokesman said, refusing to explain further. "It's a serious matter."
In other words, trust us.
In times such as these, there's a natural instinct to want to trust our government. But that trust would be much stronger if not for cases such as that of Capt. James Yee, the 1990 West Point grad and Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay who was arrested and charged with spying for al-Qaida. After holding Yee in solitary for 76 days and threatening the death penalty, military authorities were finally forced to admit they had no case. Yee was returned to active duty and just received his honorable discharge.
Then there's Brandon Mayfield, a convert to Islam and an attorney in Portland, Ore. He was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of involvement with deadly railroad bombings in Madrid, even though Mayfield hadn't left the country in years and had no contact with Islamic extremists.
The list goes on and on. In Detroit, the convictions of two men for supporting terrorism were thrown out when it was discovered the prosecution had withheld evidence that would have cleared them. In upstate New York, two Muslims charged with money-laundering in a terrorism case were released when it was learned that the prosecution was based on an incorrect translation from Arabic. In Idaho, a grad student from Saudi Arabia was cleared by a jury of charges he had assisted terrorists by setting up Islamic Web sites. And of the thousands of foreign nationals rounded up by John Ashcroft's Justice Department after Sept. 11, not one has been convicted of charges relating to terrorism.
In each of those cases, our system eventually worked. Yes, lives were altered and careers and reputations ruined. Innocent people were imprisoned for extended periods under harsh conditions. But in time, because their accusers were forced to try to prove their case to a third party, the truth became known and justice was done.
That's not the case with Yusuf Islam, who has no way of knowing the basis for the ban now placed on his entry to the United States, and thus no way to try to overturn it. The U.S. government is creating a similar passenger-ID system, called Secure Flight, for use inside the country. But officials have been less than forthcoming about how people will be able to appeal if the system bans them from flying.
That's not a theoretical concern. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., surely one of the more recognizable public figures in the country, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., have repeatedly been denied the right to fly because they were somehow listed as potential terrorists in the current patchwork system. Both men tried repeatedly, using their contacts in government, to have their names removed, but with little initial success. For ordinary Americans, the difficulty of that task would be immense, and the likelihood of success very low.
Any passenger screening system must guarantee citizens the right to challenge their inclusion on a no-fly list. Freedom to travel, after all, is an integral part of the American concept of liberty. If government can unilaterally decide which citizens can fly and which cannot, without having to justify that decision, we will have adopted an internal visa system just like that used by totalitarian countries to dictate the movement of their citizens. That's not acceptable, not in this country.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His e-mail address is jbookmanajc.com.
Cox News Service