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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2004

Innocent trip marred by a name

By Yasmin Anwar

So there I was at the Aloha Airlines check-in counter at Honolulu International Airport, bound for a Big Island wedding overlooking Kilauea 'Iki crater.

What could be more innocent?

Nonetheless, when the ticket agent punched my name into the computer, her smiling Aloha face turned stern. She took my driver's license and picked up the telephone.

"Y-A-S-M-I-N — A-N-W-A-R," she told the faceless voice on the other end.

After a couple of minutes of pregnant silence, she starting typing furiously into the computer. Apparently, my name was being run through a database.

I could feel my face growing hot and the sweat glands prickling under my armpits. "What's going on? I asked, taking the risk of being fined for what the Transportation Security Administration calls an "attitude."

"It's your name," she said after I'd been cleared. "It's been flagged." After handing me my boarding pass, she suggested future air travel might go more smoothly if I got a frequent-flier number.

Was this punishment for not flying frequently on Aloha or was there something more sinister at play? If I had to get cleared for a Neighbor Island flight, what would I endure traveling to the Mainland or, say, Libya?

For a while, my security angst dissipated as I headed to Volcano and celebrated the wedding of good friends, with champagne, speeches and no security checkpoints.

But it wasn't long before I was at the Aloha Airlines check-in counter at Hilo Airport handing over the driver's license with the dreaded N-A-M-E.

Again, the dark cloud, the phone call, the pregnant silence.

"How do I get off this Aloha list?" I begged.

"It's a federal thing," she said. "It's going to happen on every airline."

Remember those film noir movies after World War II, where a lone private dick would be chain-smoking in a dark motel room as the reflection of a neon sign flicked on and off his terse face? In his shadowy world, you couldn't trust anyone. The enemy was invisible and it was everywhere.

Well, that's how powerless the USA Patriot Act makes those of us with the "wrong name" or the "wrong ethnicity" feel in the face of heightened security. Things we cannot change trip us up in the most unexpected places.

So at the suggestion of Sidney Hayakawa, federal security director for the Hawaii TSA, I e-mailed a Department of Homeland Security ombudsman. Here's what I said:

"I have been informed that I may be on the "no-fly watch list" and need to know how to get off it. I'm an editorial writer at The Honolulu Advertiser. I have been a U.S. resident since 1987. I've never committed a crime. I've never joined a political organization. I've never made a contribution to an Islamic organization. Please tell me how to proceed."

A few minutes later, a response came: "Your message was not delivered to the following recipients."

It sure is a shadowy world out there when you've got the wrong damned name.