Hank Hoffman: Free Speech, R.I.P.
The American Airlines ticket clerk at Bangor International Airport in Maine handed Nancy Oden her ticket. She had waited what she says was an "inordinate amount of time" while the ticket agent typed and responded to computer prompts. Oden thought it odd that the clerk never asked for any identification after she gave her name. It was Thursday, Nov. 1, and Oden -- a longtime peace and environmental activist, organic farmer and leader in Green Party USA (the more radical wing of the American Green movement) -- was heading for a party confab in Chicago. She was scheduled to speak the next night on biochemical warfare.
She never got there.
She believes she was prevented from flying because of her antiwar and activist politics. Oden's experience and the anecdotal accounts of political oppression from people like her across the country indicate we face the worst crisis in civil liberties in almost half a century.
After accepting her ticket, Oden noticed it was marked with a big "S." When she asked the clerk what the "S" stood for, he told her she had been picked to have her bags searched. That's fine, Oden thought. I'm as subject to a random search as the next person. But then she paused.
"I looked him in the eye and said, 'This wasn't random, was it?'" recalls Oden in a phone interview several days later. "He looked at me for a second and said, 'No, you're flagged in our computer. You were going to be searched no matter what.'"
It got worse. After passing through the X-ray machine without setting off any alarms, Oden settled herself in the boarding area. According to Oden, a young National Guardsman yelled at her to "Bring those bags over here!" and "Hurry up!" when she didn't move fast enough. When she reached out to help undo a recalcitrant zipper for one of the women searching her bags, the Guardsman barked, "Get your hands out of there!"
The National Guardsman then grabbed Oden's arm and started "spouting pro-war stuff in my face," she says. She found this odd. How did he know her antiwar views? She wasn't wearing any buttons.
"He went on and on, saying 'Don't you know we have to get them before they get us? Don't you understand what happened on Sept. 11?'"
She pulled her arm away, telling him he couldn't do that to her. She said to him, "I'm not going to stand here and listen to you about why we should bomb poor women and children and starving people in Afghanistan." He went to grab her again but she stepped back, saying, "Don't touch me."
The Guardsman would not let Oden board the plane, claiming she didn't cooperate with the search. Oden insists she did. At one point in the ordeal, the 61-year-old, conservatively dressed Oden was surrounded by six machine-gun-toting Guardsmen. The military men told all the airlines servicing the Bangor airport not to allow Oden to fly on that day (and possibly other days). An airport policeman escorted her off the premises.
According to a Nov. 3 report in the Bangor Daily News, American Eagle spokesman Kurt Iverson said Oden was "uncooperative during the screening process." Iverson charged that Oden would not stand still to have the metal-detecting wand waved over her. Oden acknowledges asking the officer not to touch her with the wand, but says she allowed a complete search of her person and baggage. She notes that refusal to cooperate with a search is a federal crime and she was not arrested.
According to the news report, authorities acknowledged that "Oden was singled out for added extensive screening," but said "it was more likely due to the manner in which she purchased her ticket than for her activist past." As an example, an unnamed airline official said that purchasing a ticket with cash on the day of the flight would raise a red flag.
Oden has never been arrested in 30 years of activism. She bought her ticket online six weeks in advance, using a personal credit card -- not a terrorist profile. She believes she was singled out for political reasons.
"The American people have to speak out. The military are in charge of our transportation," Oden says. "Each individual one of them is the law. Whatever they say, people have to do, no matter how insulting, idiotic, degrading or against the Constitution. It's the Bill of Rights I'm worried about."
Oden's ordeal isn't unique. The disturbing signs accumulate:
* Several hundred people have been detained secretly by the government since Sept. 11. A coalition of civil liberties, human rights and Arab-American groups charge that a growing number of reports "raise serious questions about deprivations of fundamental due process, including imprisonment without probable cause, interference with the right to counsel and threats of serious bodily injury." Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks to balance national security concerns with civil liberties considerations, says the situation is "frighteningly close to the practice of 'disappearing' people in Latin America." While the comparison may be extreme, the policy of arresting people and spiriting them away to unknown places without access to lawyers and court appearances is unprecedented in contemporary America.
* As reported in the Philadelphia City Paper, Neil Godfrey, a 22-year-old Philadelphia man, was barred from a flight to Phoenix to visit his parents because officials didn't like his choice of reading material. Godfrey had a copy of the Edward Abbey novel Hayduke Lives!, about a radical environmentalist; the cover shows a man's hand holding sticks of dynamite. A National Guardsman questioned Godfrey on why he was reading it. About a dozen officers from airport, city and state police forces interrogated Godfrey for 45 minutes and pored over the book.
* Godfrey tells me he was scared: "If I said one wrong thing, I felt like I would be arrested." Although the police and military authorities cleared Godfrey to board, the airline would not permit him to fly.
* While the red, white and blue flourishes on school grounds, Katie Sierra, a West Virginia high school student, was barred from wearing a T-shirt bearing the message: "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a renewed sense of national security. God Bless America." The school, upheld immediately by a state judge, would also not allow her to start a club promoting her anarchist views. According to an article by Michael Colby on Counterpunch.org, local Board of Education member John Luoni accused Sierra of "committing treason" for criticizing the war.