J and D's Corner

From Our Random Opinions Collection

About Freedom & Security

As the days go by I find myself more & more apprehensive about the drift of America toward becoming what, not to mince words, can be described as a "police state".  To the average citizen this drift is not yet all that obvious, as except for the now-familiar and therefore accepted hassle of taking a commercial airline flight most people can go about their daily activities without interference.  The average citizen, therefore, reacts to this police state notion with something ranging from a shrug to an outright "Oh, B.S.-what's he talking about?"

Where the drift is showing up is not yet in the world of the average citizen but on the powerless fringes of society...affecting only those who, in the judgment of the "authorities", lack the political muscle to fight back.  What follows is an example.

A tiny minority of Americans, a minority of which I am a member, are airplane pilots & owners.  We own and operate small propeller driven aircraft, used primarily for personal recreational travel.  In other words, for fun.  I compare us to RV owner-operators, as these airplanes are equivalent in price range to the RVs & campers so many Americans own & enjoy.  

Just like the RV'ers we airplane operators have historically enjoyed the freedom of travel our machines can provide.  In other words, we have been able to get in our airplanes and go somewhere without seeking permission from some government security agency.  This is all changing. 

Utilizing their seemingly unfettered authority to do anything that strikes their fancy without oversight by anyone, Homeland Security has instituted a requirement that private aircraft operators seek government permission each time we propose to take off if we are planning to depart for a visit to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. We must provide advance detailed information about where, when, and who, including the names, social security numbers, addresses, etc. of all persons who will be in the aircraft.   The justification for this, they say, is that we, our spouses, family or friends might be on their mysterious and top secret "No Fly List". Apparently, anyone can be placed on this list, with or without firm justification, at which point you are reclassified as a sort of "semi-citizen" who is not quite under arrest but is precluded from traveling freely. The most significant aspect of this is that Homeland Security has indicated that they view this as a preliminary step toward their ultimate objective of requiring this data submission prior to EVERY aircraft takeoff in America, regardless of destination.   Keep this in mind as we continue.

It is important to understand that this requirement breaks entirely new ground.  While ENTERING any country requires formalities, never, ever, has it been necessary to seek & receive government permission to LEAVE America, the "land of the free".  And never, ever, has it been proposed that such permission is somehow necessary to preserve "national security".  This departure control is a requirement popularized by Iron Curtain dictatorships who, using the same justification, simply shot their citizens for trying to leave.

And speaking of being shot for trying to leave, another entirely new and very unsettling aspect of this surfaced in the form of several incidents in which citizens who filed the required information and received official permission from Homeland Security to depart the USA have been detained as they were preparing to take off and had their personal aircraft, luggage, wallets, purses, etc., searched by government agents.  In one particularly frightening case (Long Beach, California) the airplane was blocked in by multiple vehicles with red lights & sirens and the occupants forced from their plane, hands on their heads, by "screaming" agents from several agencies pointing drawn weapons.  In this and all the other incidents, after extensive searches the agents told the citizens it had been just a "routine ramp check" and departed, leaving the shaken travelers to re-pack their belongings.  This activity, totally unrelated to traditional arrival customs checks, also breaks new ground. On the face of it, it seems to clearly violate the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution, as it is not a match for any of the situations Courts have ruled would make this type of warrantless "random stop & search" activity permissible.

Complaints to Homeland Security higher-ups about these "routine checks" were answered by spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko with a bureaucratese statement that I accurately paraphrase as 'we maintain we have this power and authority, you can expect we will continue to do it whenever and wherever we wish, and there is no requirement that we justify ourselves or explain our reasons'.  This answer itself is, in my opinion, even more frightening than screaming gun-wielding agents.  Having an American bureaucrat maintain that their police organization possesses unlimited discretionary authority should give pause even to the most passive among us, as it is exactly what the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) said when anyone complained.  Overrides of our Constitutional rights by authorities are supposed to be backed by Supreme Court rulings based on clearly articulated justifications.

What does all this mean to the average citizen?  Yes, you don't own an airplane and, OK, you really don't give a [bleep] about how airplane owners are treated.  But consider this:  Do you own an RV? A car or van?  All the "justifications" being used to restrict, control and harass aviation people would apply equally to anyone who travels in RVs, cars, vans, busses, trains, bicycles or what-have-you.  And if you think that if unchecked it will stop with airplane owners, well, I fear you are sadly mistaken.

(NEW): A recent addition to the small-airplane security theater involved the Santa Barbara, CA police, a multi-agency group called the El Paso Intelligence Center ("EPIC"), some unknown "private company" and two EXTREMELY well-known aviation people, John & Martha King. 

It seems that around 2002 a Cessna 150 (an older two-seat trainer type aircraft) was stolen and later determined to be gone forever (found wrecked or whatever, we don't yet know exactly).  It's FAA registration number was therefore deleted from the system and, after a period of time, re-issued to the Cessna Corporation for use on a new aircraft, this time a 4-seat C-172, which in turn was leased to the King's corporation for use in creating training videos.  This C-172 had been flying for several years and had made literally hundreds of flights all over the country when, according to a government spokesman's early explanation, an unidentified "private company" notified the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) that a stolen aircraft was aloft on a flight plan to Santa Barbara.  EPIC in turn notified the Santa Barbara police, who surrounded the Kings' aircraft, guns drawn in "takedown" mode, handcuffed them and stuffed them in the back seats of patrol cars where they stewed in discomfort for a considerable period until someone finally took note of the fact that the description of the "stolen" airplane didn't match what they actually had.  The fact that the middle-aged and very respectable appearing Kings were such a prominent couple in the aviation world made this a big deal for aviation folk, but it was otherwise studiously ignored by the media.

Don't get me wrong. The security establishment certainly has the right & responsibility to deal with stolen airplanes, cars or whatever in this way.  The gripe in this instance was that the airplane wasn't the one reported stolen eight years previously, a fact which even the briefest examination or quick check of the public internet record would have revealed.  EPIC, and possibly others, obviously utilized badly out-of-date or possibly inappropriate databases, and it is also apparent not even a minimal amount of cross-checking was done by anyone.  Nor did anyone seem to wonder why someone flying a stolen airplane would be filing flight plans (which are not required for routine visual flights) in the first place. 

While all ended well, the fact of the matter is that being 'taken down' by cops with drawn guns in a benign situation such as this is scary and intimidating in the extreme, and should not have happened.  Questions abound regarding how all this came to be and who did what to perpetuate the error, but sadly the answers will doubtless be carefully swept under the rug to protect the incompetent.