L. Neil Smith's
Number 334, August 28, 2005

Taxation is the fuel of war

The Listing Ship of State
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

I'm a busy woman. That's probably why I'm one of those people who relies so much on lists.

Like many of you likely do, I have a grocery list. I add to it throughout the week whenever I notice I'm out of or running low on something. I have a personal "to do" list that encompasses everything from reminders to buy birthday or wedding gifts to performing a particular housecleaning chore. Of course, I also have a work "to do" list. That's the one that tells me what projects remain to be done, and what priority each of those projects have. And then I have Christmas lists (I shop year 'round, keeping my eyes open for the perfect gift for friends and family) and "wish" lists (for myself). Then, of course, there are temporary lists composed to ensure I don't forget anything when I prepare to take a trip, or that all preparations are completed prior to a party.

When all those lists are combined with an appointment calendar (mine includes everything from work-related meetings to upcoming movie premieres, and from plant watering schedules to bill paying reminders), I feel I have at least some control over my busy life. There have been times, of course, when I should have added to a list somewhere the reminder to actually remember to bring the grocery list with me to the store. I've tried on a few occasions to shop from memory, but I inevitably forget things on my list. Sometimes they're relatively unimportant; other times, my forgetfulness means an "emergency" trip back to the store (don't even ask how many times I've somehow managed to forget to buy toilet paper).

I tell you these things not to show you how organized I am (frankly, if I wanted to be better organized, I'd need more lists), but to show you that I understand the importance of writing various things down or otherwise keeping track of them. Further, by admitting my own broad use of lists as organizational tools, I acknowledge that they have real value in reducing—or at least making manageable—complex duties and schedules. As such, I understand perfectly well why the government wants to do pretty much the same. That doesn't mean, however, that I can condone it or even excuse it. You see, there's are a few big differences between me (or you) and the government.

If I make a list, I'm solely responsible for what's on that list. And if I make a mistake—forgetting to note that I need toilet paper, for example—I'm the only one who'll suffer for the error. Further, if I pay attention, I'm also able to note such mistakes and correct them in relatively short order. The government, on the other hand, scoops information from many sources, any one of which could—and frequently does—have mistakes of its own. If there are mistakes, they're compounded on the government's collected lists where they're all but impossible to fix thanks to the behemoth bureaucracy involved. Worse, there are exceedingly serious repercussions for innocents as long as long as those mistakes exist.

Consider, for example, the Transportation Security Administration's infamous "no fly" list. Sure, it'd be great if we could have a list of terrorists that we could forbid from traveling within, or even entering the country. But the last "terrorist" caught via the "no fly" list was the folk singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. What precisely was he going to do to us? Make the world listen to him sing "Morning Has Broken" for the umpteenth time? Now maybe the converted-to-Islam Stevens (who now calls himself Yusef Islam) really does have ties to terrorism in some convoluted way that's not yet been explained. Or maybe, as Time Magazine pointed out, the authorities really hoped to stop someone named Youssouf Islam from entering the country, and it was just a spelling error that prevented the former Mr. Stevens from getting to the Nashville studio where he was slated to record.

Say what you will about Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (you can rest assured that I do!), but one thing that's almost certain is that the Senator isn't a terrorist, at least not of the kind we're looking for. And yet he, too, fell victim to the "no fly" list. Being a Senator, he is likely one of the very few who managed to get the mistake corrected. Ordinary Americans aren't quite so lucky. John Graham writes, "My name is on a list of real and suspected enemies of the state and I can't find out what I'm accused of or why, let alone defend myself." To date, the Seattle resident still isn't sure why he's on the list. What he does know is that, probably thanks to that same list, the state of Washington made him jump through numerous hoops just to renew a driver's license he's had for years. And he still can't fly. He says he supports the idea of lists as much as I do, but he opposes this one in that it lacks any kind of transparency for review, or accountability from those who create and monitor its records.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Los Angeles have a little list all their own. It's a list of local gun owners. In an upcoming test program, they intend to track guns used in crimes back to their registered owners and then prosecute those who sold or otherwise transferred the firearms illegally. I know it's difficult, but forget for a moment that the mere existence of the list is an infringement of your Second Amendment rights. Constitutionality aside, it's entirely possible that this smaller list is actually largely accurate. But that's immaterial when it comes to what the police are doing with it. After all, given the prevalence of burglary, isn't it more likely that my perfectly legal firearm was stolen? Or perhaps I loaned it to my son who, in turn, suffered the theft. Maybe I did transfer it legally, but the person to whom I sold it turned around and gave it to someone who is a complete stranger to me. Yet under this program, I'd be forced to prove my innocence despite the presumption of same that's supposed to protect me in an American courtroom!

The federal government, of course, is enamored with lists and databases in general. President Bush told Americans in 2004 that the government will work to establish a national medical records database. Those who favor such things say that it will prevent harmful or fatal medical errors when doctors anywhere can access up-to-date patient information at the push of a button. Those who oppose it suggest it will offer substantial opportunity for invasion of privacy. They're right. But there's something even worse at stake here, and that's the same bugaboo that haunts the "no fly" list: mistakes. And while the "no fly" list errors generate some serious inconvenience, any mistakes on a medical database could conceivably kill you!

Have you ever done data entry work? I have. And when you're keying thousands of strokes per hour, you can rest assured that there are mistakes. It doesn't matter how good you are at data entry. Nobody is perfect, and there will eventually be a missed keystroke here, or a transposed keystroke there. The fewer keystrokes involved, the less likelihood there is of error. And the fewer records there are, the fewer will have anything wrong with them. In a localized setting, there's not only statistically less probability of error on a given record, but fewer records combined with the caregivers' knowledge of you and your case means any mistakes that are made will likely be caught on review. If those same erroneous records are sent to a national database, they'll propagate instead. That's not a comforting notion to consider if your life hinges on accurate medical data!

In an age of high speed electronic communication, what on earth would be wrong with hospitals or other medical caregivers continuing to keep their own information on their own patients and simply granting the requests of other authorized caregivers for that information on an as needed basis? Those who are really that concerned that their medical information be accessible at all times and immediately should get "chipped." (Yes, I'm kidding. Mostly.) The rest of us would rather there were a few minutes' delay than risking a quick but wrong response by a doctor or nurse. That our personal privacy would be far better protected, too, is merely the icing on the cake.

Other government lists with less deadly but still serious repercussions include those kept by the FBI of anti-war protesters. The names and groups on those lists are those of Americans. whose sole ties to terrorism are the fact that they oppose the War in Iraq. There are even some who have suggested that speaking out against the War on Terror at all is comparable to terrorism! You can be sure that those Americans, too, are on lists somewhere...

Criminals, of course, are on lots of lists (if they're sex offenders, they're on even more of them). In theory, and even in practice, I don't have much of an argument against these kinds of lists (again, though, the repercussions of mistakes are severe and thus there must be safeguards for accuracy and corrections as needed). One such list is the national DNA database. The database itself wasn't necessarily a bad idea until the administration suggested that even those merely arrested be added to it. You can bet pretty much anything you like that, once your DNA is in that database, it won't be removed even if no charges are ever filed against you!

So though criminals give up some rights by virtue of their crime, what did you do that warrants the invasion of your privacy and Fourth Amendment rights to be included in the database with real criminals? And what can you do to restore your good name? The answer to both questions is, sadly, "nothing." (Let's not even talk here about DNA "dragnets," something that has little to do with lists per se, but everything to do with an egregious violation of just about every facet of freedom you're supposed to have in this country.)

The government, under the guise of "it's for your own good," has even established such "feel good" lists such as the "no call" list geared to ensure Americans who don't want telemarketing calls don't get them. Unfortunately, there are so many exceptions to the "don't call" rules that the list is almost literally nothing but a collection of names and phone numbers that are widely dispersed. I don't know about you, but I'd rather hang up on a few extra calls (or let my answering machine handle matters) than hand over my name and home phone number to anybody let alone a list like that one!

The nastiest lists of all—those proposed by the Total Information Awareness and MATRIX programs—remain unfulfilled, but are not likely to remain so. TIA is effectively dead as is the TSA's initial "no fly" program, and MATRIX fizzled when residents of test states protested the loss of privacy. But MATRIX isn't dead yet and is already making a bit of a comeback; TIA has already been replaced by another Pentagon program with a less threatening name; and the TSA now has its "Secure Flight" program with which to infringe on our liberties (for the record, Secure Flight is already in trouble with the government's own watchdogs at the General Accounting Office for doing things it promised it wouldn't do).

Like I said, I think lists are great. I don't really blame the government for wanting them, too. But how much good they can potentially do isn't the issue, here, but rather how much harm. Lyndon Johnson once said, "You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered." (That he unfortunately didn't take his own advice doesn't undermine the basic truth of what he said.) The same is true of lists.

When lists are well kept, they're invaluable. When they're not, they're less than worthless: they're actually harmful. No matter the government's goals, stated or unstated, altruistic or more sinister, lists as large and as cross-referenced as those the government has and wants can't be well kept. That's actually not a statement on government employee capability or on the motives of any political person or body. It is, instead, a fact. There is an absolute certainty that there will be mistakes on such databases, and that those mistakes will prove harmful. It's also a given that there will be those who are corrupt and power-hungry who will try to take advantage of the information offered on such lists.

As much as I rely on my own little system of lists, I'd throw them away if they were endangering me or harming you. To do less would be both inhumane and anti-freedom, both of which I will never voluntarily be. The question now is whether or not we'll voluntarily let our government continue in its inhumanity as it maintains and works to enlarge its own liberty-limiting lists.


You Say Yusuf, I Say Youssouf...

Sen. Kennedy Flagged by No-Fly List

Who's Watching the Watch List?

LAPD gun tracking effort will be tested in Valley

DoD Medical-Record System is Model for National Version

High-tech record: Less paperwork, less privacy

FBI scrutinizing anti-war protesters

White House seeks to expand DNA database


Florida Planning Son of Matrix

GAO: TSA data collection violated Privacy Act; agency says test passenger screening program overstepped restrictions

(Total) "Terrorism" Information Awareness (TIA)

Lyndon B. Johnson Quotes

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