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Keeler: Now fix the airport terror lists


TSA. Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


Now that the Department of Homeland Security has decided to scrap the goofy and useless color-coded terror warning system adopted after 9/11, here's another to-do item for those who guard the nation from harm. How about repairing the watch lists that make air travel an ordeal for people like Tawab Hamidi?

Hamidi's plight came to my attention through Dr. Shaik Ubaid, a neurologist and co-chair of the New York chapter of the Muslim Peace Coalition, USA. Ubaid knows a bit about mystery lists: His nephew, now 10, has been stuck on one and endured a delay of four or five hours on his return from a family visit to India.

For Hamidi, 35, a Northport High School and Stony Brook University graduate, the delays are similar. "On one occasion, it took six hours," he said from Dubai, where he now works.

The first time it happened was in 2008, a few months after his information technology company moved him to Dubai. His flight back to the United States made an emergency landing in Germany for an ill passenger. So, on its arrival at JFK, the passengers were already in a foul mood when the pilot announced that there would be a further delay - a security check. They grumbled: "Who's the guy responsible for this?"

When Hamidi, who had been seated in the last row, finally reached the officials just outside the plane, he found out that he was that guy. "One police officer said to the other guy, 'We got him,' " he recalled.

Despite that gotcha, it took only two hours for authorities to realize that the "him" they had gotten, a U.S. citizen, was not a him who threatened the nation. So they let Hamidi go.

But since then, whenever he flies here - on business and to visit family - he can count on long delays. A lot of that is waiting around. Some of it is answering a series of mystifying questions. None of it provides him with answers as to how his name got on a list or what he can do to get himself off it.

So terror has become bookends around his life. It began 30 years ago, when he was a boy, caught up in the terror of war in Afghanistan. Now he's a traveler tangled in the web of the war on terror, or whatever they're calling it these days.

Hamidi grew up in Kabul. His father was a high-ranking military officer when the communists took over. He refused to join the party and was jailed three times. Finally, he left for work one day and never returned - disappeared, like many thousands of others.

After many months of waiting in vain for his return, Hamidi and his mother and younger sister began their exodus. It included a near-miss in a Russian army attack on a town near where they were, months in Pakistan, and 40 days in jail in India. His family finally arrived in this country in 1987.

"I came into the U.S. knowing no English at all," he said. "I always had this love for learning, and thank God, it really propelled me."

After a shooting near their Queens building, his family moved to East Northport. He graduated from Stony Brook in 1999, worked for a major Long Island electronics firm before joining his current one, got married and lived in Bay Shore, until the move to Dubai.

He'll keep flying back, but as much as he wants his daughter and son to stay in touch with their American roots, he won't bring them. He doesn't want them to see him humiliated - in ways his colleagues simply are not. "I'm not aware of any non-Muslims who have gone through this," he said.

Hamidi is a victim of a necessity, a watch list, that's not correctly maintained and revised. For now, he has no choice but to take it and hope that, somehow, the outbreak of sanity that killed the color codes can fix the list that traps him.