Republicans won't fix the no-fly list. They just want to exempt their voters.

An airplane.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Let's start by acknowledging that the federal government's "no-fly list" is problematic. The list was created following the 9/11 attacks to keep suspected terrorists off airplanes, and it's always been a civil liberties nightmare — stories abound of apparently innocent travelers finding themselves unable to board an airplane, denied a clear explanation or due process for challenging their ban. At times, the list has been abused by less-than-scrupulous officials.

If we are keeping people off airplanes, though, shouldn't we start with people who actually have made trouble on airplanes?

Maybe not. A group of Republican senators — including Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) Mike Lee (Utah), and Rick Scott (Fla.) — wrote this week to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking him to nix a plan to put unruly passengers on the list. Why? Because it's not right to equate people convicted of on-board disruptions with those who are merely suspected, for unclear reasons, of having bad intentions.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"The TSA was created in the wake of 9/11 to protect Americans from future horrific attacks, not to regulate human behavior onboard flights," the senators wrote.

There is, of course, a political element here: Many badly behaving passengers are angry over the federal mask mandate for air travel — and the rule is an unconscionable act of tyranny to many GOP voters. "Creating a federal 'no-fly' list for unruly passengers who are skeptical of this mandate," the senators wrote, "would seemingly equate them to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland." That downplays the impact of the most disruptive passengers, who have caused planes to be diverted from their destinations and terrorized their fellow flyers and flight crews.

Still, it might be intriguing if Republicans were to spearhead a reform of the no-fly list. After all, the senators acknowledge the list "is already controversial due its lack of transparency and its due process concerns." Fixing a bad system could and should draw the support of civil libertarians of all ideological stripes. And Mike Lee, in particular, has a bipartisan history on civil liberty issues. Still, the GOP senators seem mostly interested in exempting their badly behaving constituents from accountability while leaving others — especially brown people — to live with the status quo. The law-and-order party seeks impunity for its own.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.