TSA Sued by Student Detained Over Arabic Flashcards

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In America, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a reputation for jumping at little things like fingernail clippers (or Congressional Medals of Honor) while letting major threats (like guns in carry-on baggage) slip through unnoticed. The TSA argues that it’s bad reputation is largely undeserved. It’s true that there are many competent personnel working for the TSA who do a great job, and that a lot of critics are people who just don’t appreciate it when new security measures are applied to them.

Unfortunately, they also provide a lot of fodder for their critics. Take, for instance, the case of Nicholas George, a student who wants to become a foreign diplomat someday and is studying Arabic.

According to the Los Angeles Times, George was detained for four hours at the Philadelphia airport for trying to learn Arabic on the plane. Intending to get some studying done, George had packed Arabic flashcards. The flashcards included a variety of common Arabic words, including “bomb” and “terrorism”- understandable when you consider how common those particular events are in the Middle East, and therefore in Arabic-language newspapers.

The TSA confiscated the flashcards during the pre-flight screening, and began questioning him. According to CNN, the questions they asked included things like “Who did 9/11?” and “Do you know what language he spoke?” “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?” Then, they called in the FBI.

According to George, he was held for 4 hours and cursed at by an FBI agent, who also asked him if was a Muslim, a member of a “pro-Islamic” group, or a communist. George told the LA Times that if he was detained for his flashcards,”then we’ve got a real 1st Amendment issue here. I have a right to study Arabic.”

It probably wasn’t just the flashcards-the stamps on his passport showed that the young man had been to Arabic countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, and travel to Arabic countries tends to cause you to receive extra scrutiny in the airport. Still, he didn’t have anything dangerous on his person or in his bag, so detaining him for 4 hours and making him miss his flight seems a little excessive.

The US needs more people who understand the Arabic language and who are interested in using that knowledge to serve their country. It would probably be best if the TSA didn’t treat automatically treat the Arabic language as a security threat.

With the help of the ACLU, George is suing the TSA, the FBI and the Philadelphia police department.