A Year Later
By PAT MORRISON
Asif Iqbal is living a nightmare. A resident of Rochester, N.Y., whose business often takes him to Manhattan, he felt the horror of Sept. 11 at close range. Like most Americans, he cannot begin to comprehend the hatred-fed terrorism that snuffed out more than 3,000 lives and left thousands more grieving over the loss of parents, spouses, siblings, children, coworkers and friends.
As the United States redoubles security and anti-terrorism surveillance in the wake of 9/11, there are similarly efforts underway to enable Americans to heal, to move on, to restore some semblance of normalcy to life. But for Iqbal, there is no normalcy. What the U.S. government labels as Homeland Security has created not only insecurity for the Pakistan-born management consultant, but 24-hour fear.
Iqbal flies from New York to Pennsylvania on business twice a week, Monday and Thursday -- one of his major clients is the state of Pennsylvania. He racks up frequent flier miles on several different airlines with round-trip tickets purchased by his employer. Because of his frequent flight profile, airlines would normally consider as low-risk the 29-year-old University of Texas graduate with an economics degree. But on Feb. 13 that status changed overnight when the federal government transferred all security formerly overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration to the newly created Transportation Security Agency.
One of a string of new agencies with heightened powers put in place by the Bush administration, the Transportation Security Agency immediately set to work implementing a no-flight list. The list profiles thousands of individuals identified by the Department of Transportation; no one whose name appears on the list can board any flight within the nation or be allowed to board incoming international flights.
Asif Iqbal learned that he was on the no-flight list when he checked in for his regular flight to Pennsylvania Feb. 14. As the airline clerk attempted to generate Iqbals ticket, the computer locked. The words DENY TRANSPORTATION flashed on the screen, with the message: NOTIFY LOCAL LEO (law enforcement officer). Armed airport security guards surrounded him within seconds. The head of corporate security for the airline arrived soon after to interrogate him.
Iqbal never boarded his flight that day. And every time he has tried to fly since, he goes through the same drill. While most airline passengers are now told to expect a two-hour wait due to security at the airport, Iqbal now counts on three or four, and often spends even longer trying to prove hes not the Asif Iqbal on the list.
The person on the Transportation Security Agencys no-flight list is Asif Iqbal, but not the frequent flyer from Rochester, N.Y. Instead, the targeted Asif Iqbal is an al Qaeda fighter captured in Afghanistan, currently a prisoner at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Camp X-Ray prisoner is also Pakistani-born but raised in Great Britain. The two men have different ages and dates of birth; they bear no physical resemblance to each other. The only things the two men appear to have in common is their name, and the fact they are both Muslim.
Im trying to take it in a good way and be patient, Iqbal told NCR in a phone interview. But you have no idea how frustrated and discouraged I am. I cant live my life, and then to make it worse, the people who see all this activity, the people behind me in line at the airport, they think I am a terrorist, a terrible person.
What Iqbal finds ironic is that he, a law-abiding U.S. taxpayer, is profiled and detained twice a week because of the identity snafu, while the Asif Iqbal on the Transportation Security Agency no-flight list because of terrorist links is already in prison.
Iqbal has enlisted the help of his congressional representative Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and several civil rights groups to try to get his name off the list and to give me my life back, he said. To date, appeals to the Transportation Security Agency and Department of Transportation have gone unanswered. The FBI told us they sympathize, but theres nothing they can do. An agent said I should just give up and change my name.
Iqbal also worries that the constant public scrutiny will affect his job. Hes already missed several flights and related meetings with clients. He fears his employer could decide hes too much of a business risk. They could say to me one day, hey, youre just too much trouble.
I love this country, I pay taxes, I hate terrorism, Iqbal said. I think about how much taxpayers money is being used to profile me and detain me instead of the bad guys, and it makes me angry. Im paying taxes to have my life disrupted, and so much energy and resources are wasted on me.
To do something positive with his frustration, Iqbal has taken a proactive approach to try to resolve the situation. He has his company call the airline counter in advance each time he flies to vouch for him. Hes trying to convince the Transportation Security Agency and the FBI that they should adopt a photo I.D. system and birth-date match in addition to the name list. If it comes up [on the computer] that the guy on the list and I have the same date of birth and look the same, then fine. If not, get me off the list.
Its really stressful. I travel every week, and I feel like its asking me every time if I am really an American. I am embarrassed by it.
To get away from the stress, Iqbal and his wife, Asiya, thought of taking a trip to Europe. But they quickly scrapped the idea. The FBI told me Id never get back in the country, because whatever country I visited would have the no-flight list and everything would have to go through the U.S. consulate or embassy wherever we visited. With a sad laugh he added, and they said theyd have U.S. fighter jets tailing the plane I was on. Can you imagine the cost?
The cost may be more than a dollar amount.
I never felt this way before Sept. 11, said Iqbal, but all this says to me there is a division in what a U.S. citizen is. If you have black hair and dark skin youre not an American the way a person with blonde hair and light skin is. If youre a Muslim American, youre not a U.S. citizen the same way another American is.
I think thats the worst thing about all this.
Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002