One way to get on the TSA watch list is to be a suspected terrorist. Another way is to be critical of the TSA. For example, Drew Griffin (a CNN reporter) ended up on the TSA watch list shortly after he did a piece critical of the TSA. Physicist Thomas B. Cochran was also put on the watch list. In 2002 he helped ABC news expose the fact that the nuclear material screening system in use in American ports could easily be defeated. Congressman John Lewis is also on the watch list, but it is unclear why. There are also other people on the list who no doubt should not be on it. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was recently removed from a terrorist watch list.
Watch lists of this sort do have a legitimate function. After all, it is the duty of a government to protect its citizens and such lists provide a minor tool in achieving this end. While I do recognize their usefulness, I tend to dislike the keeping of such lists. They seem to smell a bit of tyranny.
Naturally enough, a list intended to aid in the defense against terrorists should only contain the names of people who are terrorists or are likely to play a role in terrorism. Obviously, people like Griffin, Lewis and Cochran are not terrorists and should not be on that list.
The reason why Griffin and Cochran made the list seems rather obvious: they were critical of the TSA and revealed truths unpleasant to those in charge of the list. This sort of treatment of critics has been standard practice throughout history. For example, Socrates was placed on trial partially because he exposed the failings of the powerful. However, as Socrates argued, the state should be grateful for such critics because they perform a valuable service. If the goal of the TSA is to protect Americans, they should be grateful when someone assists them in exposing weaknesses and thus enables them to make America safer. Of course, if their main concern is not for the safety of the people but for something else, then such actions would be regarded with hostility.
it might be replied that people such as Cochran and Griffin are actually a threat to America. After all, the exposure of weaknesses in America’s security could be viewed as rendering possible aid to the enemies of America. Such information could be used by terrorists in planning and implementing an attack. For example, the weakness exposed by Cochran and ABC could be used to smuggle in material to make a radioactive weapon of some sort.
This reply does have some appeal. After all, revealing a vulnerability can be seen as a betrayal. For example, the Persians were able to outflank the Spartans by learning of the location of a secret pass. Perhaps what Cochran and Griffin did could be seen as analogous to revealing a pass to America’s enemies.
However, the analogy does break down. Griffin and Cochran were not acting to betray America to her enemies. Rather, they seemed to be acting with the intent of exposing a vulnerability so that it could be corrected. In the case of Cochran, his intent has been made quite clear in a recent article in Scientific American. In this article he argues that the United States should adopt methods that will actual help protect America from nuclear smuggling. This is hardly the sort of thing an enemy of America would do.
Putting such critics on the watch list is clearly morally wrong. First, they are being punished for attempting to expose flaws in security that need to be corrected. If these defects remained unknown, then they would probably remain until a terrorist or other wrongdoer found them and used them to do real harm. Second, taking such action against people who are critical goes against the basic principles of an open democracy. Third, such action can serve to deter the criticism that is so essential to exposing and correcting problems. This could have serious and unfortunate consequences. Fourth, the use of this method to try to punish critics is, as Locke would argue, an act of tyranny. Fifth, putting such people on the list can waste time and resources that could be better spent on people who really should be on such a list.
In light of the misuse of the list, there needs to be greater oversight in regards to who is on the list and why. Failure to do so would be to further a moral wrong and also put America at greater risk.