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Karen Coleman: Post-9/11 US is jumpy but must put its paranoia into perspective


Staff Sgt Robert Bales, left, who allegedly went on a shooting spree at an Afghan village.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales, left, who allegedly went on a shooting spree at an Afghan village.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales, left, who allegedly went on a shooting spree at an Afghan village.

Here's something you might want to think about before you plan your annual holiday. Let's say you and your family are off on your holidays and you're heading to the US for a fortnight.

How would you feel if you knew that the US Department of Homeland Security had an exceptional amount of personal information about all of you based on your flights to the US?

And would it make a difference if you knew that the airline flying you there had provided all of that data to the Americans?

Well, whether you like it or not, this situation will become normal thanks to a new agreement approved by the European Parliament last Thursday.

A majority of MEPs sanctioned the use and transfer of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data to the US authorities. In future, they will be able to access details of passengers flying between the EU and the US.

That information will include your name, contact, email and credit card details, along with data about your baggage and even where you sat on the plane. And it doesn't stop there.

If you happen to be Jewish or Muslim or a Buddhist with a vegan diet, and you requested meals to complement your religious beliefs, the US authorities will be entitled to acquire those sensitive details.

That information can be held for up to 15 years, although the passenger's identity should be 'anonymised' after six months. The data will be kept in an 'active database' for the first five years, after which it will be moved to a 'dormant' database.

The Americans insist the deal is part of their ongoing fight against terrorism and their crackdown on international crime. It's all part of the continuing fallout from the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

But does the tragedy of 9/11 justify an Orwellian surveillance of our personal details? Is this intrusion of our privacy an unacceptable breach of our civil liberties?

When it comes to terrorist threats, the Americans have legitimate reasons to be vigilant. There are plenty of would-be suicide bombers out there eager to murder Western targets. Since 9/11, we've had the London and Madrid bombings and there have been several attempts to blow up airlines flying to the US.

Of course, the Americans are justifiably jumpy about their security and they want to keep an eye on who's entering their airspace. But we need to put that paranoia into perspective because it brings with it a skewed sense of who really poses the greater threat to global security. Now I don't want to come across as anti-American but let's take a reality check.

Since 9/11, tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed as a result of misguided American foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last March, an American soldier went on a killing spree in a rural Afghan village near his base in Kandahar province.

He broke into people's homes late at night and shot dead 16 Afghan people, including nine children.

Imagine if a Muslim fanatic had carried out a similar act of carnage on American soil?

And let's not forget America's extremely dubious flights of rendition and detention of 'terror suspects'.

When you look at these facts, you could argue that Muslim states are at far more risk from US-led provocations than the reverse.

Still, having said that, we shouldn't dismiss American efforts to counter terror threats back home. In fact, you could conclude their bad behaviour abroad increases those risks. And that brings us back to the new PNR deal between the EU and the US.

It turns out we didn't have much of a choice. MEPs told me last week that had the EU refused to pass the PNR agreement, the Americans would have insisted on bi-lateral arrangements with individual EU states. Uncooperative countries could have been frozen out.

So if Ireland was to put civil liberties above US security demands, our visa waiver programme with the US could be axed.

There is another aspect to all of this.

Fear is a lucrative business. The multibillion-euro global defence and security industries prosper on the war on terror and on people's paranoia.

Those fears create a vicious circle; the more dangerous we believe the world to be, the more we'll feel the need for protection.

And the global protection racket is massive.

You can be sure this new PNR deal will make some people very rich. It will probably create thousands of jobs with people employed to collect and scrutinise the millions of pieces of information on passengers flying between the EU and US.

And, meanwhile, our privacy and civil liberties will continue to be chipped away in this post-9/11, Orwellian world.

Irish Independent