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Editorial

Flying the friendly skies

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Well you've cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.

But will you keep on building higher

'til there's no more room up there?

Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?

Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

After penning lyrics like that it’s little wonder Yusuf Islam’s commercial airline flight was diverted, he was interviewed by federal agents, denied entry to the U.S.A. and put on the first flight back to where he came from.

Obviously the devote Muslim was responsible for, at the very least, inciting the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre.

Except that the lyrics were first heard on an album released in 1970 – Tea for the Tillerman – when Yusuf Islam went by the name of Cat Stevens. The song was called Where Do The Children Play?

Except that Yusuf Islam was one of the first recording artists to announce the donation of partial royalties from a four-disc box set of his music to the September 11th Fund (other royalties were already promised to orphans and homeless families in underdeveloped countries) just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Except that Yusuf Islam has spoken out many times about how Islamic fundamentalists have grotesquely twisted his religion, and calling the Sept. 11 attacks "blind irreligious hatred" that had nothing to do with Muslim beliefs.

Still, Yusuf Islam discovered this week that he is on a "watch list" and considered a threat to U.S. national security.

"He was interviewed and denied admission to the United States on national security grounds," a Homeland Security spokesman said after the United Airlines flight Islam was on was diverted from its London-Washington route and landed in Maine.

The story was in papers and newscasts early this week, and then quickly died. Sacrifices must be made in wartimes, Canadians collectively shrugged, although Maher Arar probably had a little stronger reaction.

But Yusuf Islam was not the first "suspect" traveller stopped by U.S. authorities, and he won’t be the last. On Tuesday this week, the same day Islam’s flight was diverted, federal officials announced that everyone who took a commercial flight within the United States in June will have his or her travel information turned over to the government, so it can test a new system for identifying "terrorists".

Watch lists of suspects are maintained by a Terrorist Screening Center, which is administered by the FBI, as part of a new screening system called Secure Flight. The full program is expected to be implemented in the spring. It is, of course, being done to prevent another disaster like 9/11. No one could argue with reasonable efforts to that effect.

But three years after 9/11 the standards for traditional airline passenger screening, the metal detector and the luggage x-ray, still vary widely at airports across the U.S. Rather than beef up those systems the preferred security measure is to compile secret lists of suspects.

And just who is a terrorist suspect and who isn’t can be a tough call, as Senator Ted Kennedy and Rep. John Lewis found when they were stopped at airports because people with their names appeared on watch lists.

The vast majority of people, who don’t have criminal records and haven’t been meeting with al Qaeda members, generally don’t have anything to worry about. But as the Americans’ colour-coded terrorist alert system climbs to orange again, as it surely will prior to the U.S. election Nov. 2 and the Iraq elections in January, the watch lists will be scrutinized more closely. Suspicions won’t be left unchecked. And commercial airline travel will once again nosedive into the joyless drudgery that has made cruise ship and automobile vacations the choice of many.

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