Nick George, who took three years of Arabic in college, says he made these flash cards -- the English translation is on the other side -- to help him read Arabic-language news sites
In August, 2009, a 22-year-old Pomona College senior was questioned, handcuffed, and placed in a cell at the Philadelphia International Airport police station for five hours for carrying Arabic flash cards in his pocket as he tried to board his flight back to school in California.
Now the ACLU is suing the TSA, the Philadelphia police, and the FBI, charging that their treatment of Nicholas George violated his constitutional rights to free speech and to protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Although the security services won't comment on the pending lawsuit, an anonymous source told CNN that George was singled out for a "random" search because he exhibited "erratic" and "anomalous" behavior. The nature of that behavior was not specified, but some of the flash cards he carried had words like "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist." George was also carrying a copy of Rogue Nation, a book critical of U.S. policy that was written by a conservative former Reagan administration official and endorsed by such experts from across the aisle as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Gen. Wesley Clark. And he had studied abroad in Jordan in connection with his major in Middle Eastern Studies (his second major is physics).
It's possible to get on a plane with explosives hidden in your underwear, or even with unconcealed English-language pamphlets advocating "Death to America" -- one sketchy-looking traveler ahead of me on line easily carried one such screed onto a plane last year with only a bored nod from the TSA agent.
But overt displays of Arabic are no more acceptable to the TSA than water bottles or nail clippers: two years ago an Iraqi passenger was prevented from flying on JetBlue for wearing a t-shirt with the slogan "We will not be silent" in both Arabic and English (the TSA eventually settled that passenger's mistreatment complaint for $240,000).
Other languages raise alarms as well. Recently a USAir plane from New York to Louisville was diverted to Philadelphia when a flight attendant spotted a 17-year-old orthodox Jew praying in Hebrew with tefillin -- boxes which contain Hebrew prayers -- wrapped with leather straps around his head and arm. This despite the fact that orthodox Jews are not known for blowing up planes, and that flight crews apparently consider Christian passengers praying to be a completely normal onboard activity. Homeland Security agents and a police bomb squad boarded the plane in Philadelphia, pointed a gun at the boy, handcuffed him and his 13-year-old sister, and forced them to make an unscheduled detour to the City of Brotherly Love, while explaining to the press that the passenger was "disruptive" and "suspicious." The pair were later determined to be harmless and were released.
Singer Bob Dylan wears tefillin and a tallis to pray, but now he'll think twice before wearing them on a jet plane
The ACLU complaint in George v. TSA states that at no time during his five-hour ordeal was Nick George told why he was being detained. Nor was he informed of his right to remain silent, his right to an attorney, or his right to leave the airport without boarding the plane. In fact, when an FBI agent asked if George knew why he was being held, he replied that he did not, at which point "one of the agents responded, in part, by calling Mr. George a 'f---ing idiot.'" The FBI then concluded that George posed no real threat and sent him back to the boarding gate, where he was told he'd have to wait until the next day to fly.
Par. 65 of the ACLU complaint in George v. TSA, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia
The 1970 comedy "The Out of Towners" ends with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis heading back to the Midwest after their every-traveler's-nightmare trip to New York City. Lemmon walks to the front of the plane to ask for a cup of coffee for Dennis, only to learn that the plane is being hijacked to Havana instead. By the time the movie aired on TV two years later, talk of hijacking had become so sensitive an issue that passengers learned not to joke about it at an airport or in the air or risk arrest by security guards or air marshals. Now, post 9-11 fear of flying has led airlines to prohibit passengers from reading, praying, speaking suspicious languages, or even carrying lists of vocabulary words in those languages in our pockets.
The final scene of the comedy "The Out of Towners" (1970): On the flight home after an every-traveler's-nightmare visit to New York City, Jack Lemmon is told by a hijacker, "This plane is going to Havana." Soon after the film's debut, joking about hijacking in an airport became taboo.
And there's an added irony: post 9-11, the U.S. government began actively encouraging the study of Arabic and other languages critical to national security, but at the same time it began treating Arabic speakers, or those interested in learning the language, with suspicion. In a scene combining elements of Kafka and Orwell, Nick George was detained at the airport simply for having some Arabic words in his pocket.
As ACLU National Security expert Ben Wizner put it in his announcement of the lawsuit on behalf of George, "Arresting and restraining passengers who pose no threat to flight safety and are not breaking any law not only violates people's rights, but it won't make us any safer. It may actually make us less safe, by diverting vital resources and attention away from true security threats."
It's one thing to protect air travelers by erring on the side of caution. That results in minor inconveniences: we take off our shoes and belts, toss our lattes, leave lotions and creams at home, have our bags searched, and stand quietly while machines x-ray our undies. But handcuffs, interrogations, and detention cells for "suspects" who have broken no laws and are charged with no crimes goes far beyond an abundance of caution, attacking the very way of life that we are striving to protect.
During World War I, many parts of the U.S. banned the use of German, or of all foreign languages. Today, more than ever, as we defend ourselves against terrorists as well as more conventional enemies, it remains vital to the survival of our nation for our government and our law enforcement agencies to preserve our civil liberties, not to trample them. These liberties include not being detained without cause, and the right to read, study, speak, or write in any language, including English, without courting arrest.
This World War II WPA poster advertising a lecture by Max Lerner is as pertinent today as it was 60 years ago