• August 29, 2015

Student Sues Over Detention at Airport for Arabic-Language Flashcards

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday on behalf of a Pomona College student who says he was interrogated, handcuffed, and held for five hours at Philadelphia International Airport last summer because he was carrying a set of Arabic-English flashcards as part of his college language studies.

The student, Nicholas George, who was later released, alleges that a Transportation Security Administration supervisor asked his views of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and what language Osama bin Laden speaks, adding, "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

The complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, alleges that security and police officials violated Mr. George's constitutional rights to free speech and freedom from unreasonable seizure.

Officials with the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI in Washington, where a blizzard has shut down federal-government offices, did not respond to requests for comment.


1. _perplexed_ - February 10, 2010 at 05:45 pm

Does the TSA have the common sense required to protect us? I suppose one might be impressed that they could sort the situation out in "only" five hours, but I have a hard time summoning that reaction.

2. riverm - February 11, 2010 at 05:43 am

I can't help feeling like there is more to this story than we are hearing from the student. I live in the Middle East and have traveled countless times to the U.S. I have had Arabic literature with me and I have got visas and residency permits in Arabic in my passport. The authorities have always treated me with respect. If the student was disrespectful or belligerant toward the TSA authorities then he got what he deserved. These people have a thankless job at best.

3. klblk - February 11, 2010 at 06:31 am

@riverm, I was subjected to additional security amounting nearly to harassment by TSA in the Philadelphia terminal for asking a reasonable question of the security staff at the checkpoint exiting international arrivals. This was the only time -- and I travel extensively around the world -- I have had such an experience, and I was definitely neither belligerent or disrespectful.

4. atokal - February 11, 2010 at 06:54 am

I have to agree with klblk. As has been riverm's experience, I am normally treated with great respect by TSA, and I do a lot of traveling. But any large collection of generally good people can have its occasional jerk. I recently had a nasty experience at the Atlanta airport where I was the second to last person in the security line, having passed through documents check and not yet having reached the metal detectors. With only one person in the line behind me, I decided to put my keys in my briefcase since I wouldn't need them for a few days, and set the briefcase down on the floor to do so. The line ahead of me moved a bit while I was setting down and unzipping the case, leaving maybe an eight foot gap, but it was still going to be a while before I made it to the metal detectors. It wasn't ten seconds before I had a TSA employee banging loudly on the plexiglas separating the security lanes while yelling loudly and aggressively at me, "Keep moving! Don't leave gaps in the line! Pick that up and move NOW!" I obeyed, and then watched while he also aggressively "corrected" people who had received no direction on which line to enter but didn't happen to pick the one he thought they should take.

There is no more to this story; that's the whole thing. Just prior to this, I had received very friendly and courteous service from the person who had checked my documents, who called me by named, joked a bit, and wished me a good trip. All this proves is that any system that may consist primarily of good people can have its occasional bully.

5. snwiedmann - February 11, 2010 at 07:03 am

If you never went to college and never studied a foreign language, you might not understand why foreign language flash cards are innocuous for a college student to possess. Perhaps our national security (at least the part handled by TSA) should not be entrusted to individuals who appear to have no more than a high school diploma.

6. megginson - February 11, 2010 at 07:40 am

I'd add to atokal's note something I heard a security person share with several people a few years ago at the Champaign, IL airport. Being treated like that isn't just a matter of having your pride wounded. When someone, security employee or otherwise, is yelling at someone else in a security area, it creates what the security person called a "dangerous distraction" - remember how magicians use misdirection to get everyone to look somewhere else while they're doing something they don't want you to see? That's why most of the security people deal quietly with the issues that come up. The person who was verbally roughing up atokal and the other people trying to get to their planes wasn't addressing any security problem - at that point, the person *was* the security problem.

7. mart7624 - February 11, 2010 at 08:59 am

Since arabic is the language terrorists most use, we should encourage students to study this important subject.

8. atana09 - February 11, 2010 at 09:32 am

Well we have become a petty authoritarian state whose minions are the best class of idiot our society can produce.

TSA is not exactly noted for efficiency and for that matter real relevance in the ambiguous and now never ending 'war on terror'.
And we have to remember that the same governmental system which interdicts students with gasp! flash cards is the same one which has stated people who overtly espouse its own constitution, serve the nation itself, or simply refuse to kowtow should be watched as potential 'terrorist'.

And attempting to rationalize or justify the actions of TSA in this matter by stating that M. George had deservedly been interdicted because he had disputed the matter with TSA; shows how sad of an example of a people we have become. After years of propaganda and fear mongering we will now quietly acquiesce to any form of boot licking that some anonymous bureaucrat elects to put into place. Which includes being detained for flash cards, jewelry, legos (in the schools) and allowing the ultimate indignity of having basic modesty taken away from us...all done because our fears have been so manipulated that is all we now define ourselves by...

The country which produced genuine courage such as Martin Luther King, Joshua Chamberlain, and thousands of others has seemingly become little more than acquiescence to a form of fear mongering which they would have found impossible, or at least contemptible.

9. sahara - February 11, 2010 at 09:37 am

I've traveled with Arabic language study materials, too, and not had any problem. As with anything that could draw unwanted attention, you just keep your stuff down in your bag until you're get to where you can get it out and use it without drawing attention. I wonder -- was he "testing" the system with unusual behavior?

If he was just carrying study material, then I hope he wins his case. There are a million reasons to study Arabic that have nothing to do with politics and terrorism.

10. speterfreund - February 11, 2010 at 10:26 am

And let's remember how helpful our Republican senators--Jim De Mint in particular in this case--have been when it comes to upgrading the performance standards of the TSA. De Mint, we should all remember, put a hold on the nomination of Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to direct the TSA, because Southers would not preclude granting the TSA the right of collective bargaining, a right which might have resulted in enhanced training and/or educational benefits, among others.

So let me see: the most hysterical of the xenophobes in the government are doing all that they can to make sure that their phobia is institutionalized in our air travel system. As my British colleagues might say, "brilliant!"

11. jaysanderson - February 11, 2010 at 10:37 am

The TSA has a nearly impossible task in keeping mass murderers off of passenger planes. Thousands of people were killed in one morning when screeners and federal agents weren't suspicious enough. This student should stop whining, answer the questions, and be damn grateful that someone cares enough to try to protect human life.

I'm sure the TSA would appreciate ideas for more effective screening methods from those who pontificate ad nauseum about the rights of a cocky student who is too special to be questioned. Throw the case out and send Nick to talk with families of those who died horrific deaths on September 11, 2001.

12. jaysanderson - February 11, 2010 at 10:48 am

Immediately after my last comment, I happened upon the newly-released aerial photos of the World Trade Towers on fire and collapsing. I recall everything about that day, including the footage that aired over the next few days of Arabic-speaking peoples from several countries dancing in the streets and celebrating. I also recall the threats--translated from Arabic--that 9/11 was only the beginning of terror for us that would never cease. Maybe Nick was too young to remember the impact of those attacked. Maybe Nick doesn't know any soldiers who have died trying to prevent al-quaeda from doing that again. Do I sound angry? I am. Shame on Pomona College for not teaching RECENT history to this young man.

13. betsysuper - February 11, 2010 at 11:01 am

It seems to me that unless the student was planning on holding up another passenger at flashcard-point this is a total waste of time by the security staff. Maybe if they spent more time oh, I don't know, looking for explosives and chemicals rather than paper cards we wouldn't have crazy people going on the plane. Because presumably the ones about to blow themselves (and the plane) up aren't practicing their language skills.

14. johntoradze - February 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

If you read "Muslim Mafia" by Gaubatz, you will find out that jhad groups deliberately send people through as projects to test the system and to try to get special treatment for muslims. The "Flying Imams" were of that kind.

Doing a little google search on George, TSA records state that local police were called before George went through the checkpoint due to his behavior. The responding local police officer wrote that he was detained because of spending months in Jordan and Egypt along with mismatches between his ID from Jordan and his cleancut appearance in line. Apparently he had an ID from Jordan where he has long hair and facial hair. This is considered a flag for possible radicalization. They called FBI. FBI said they wanted to interview him after being told the story so he was held for an interview and then released.

15. wmartin46 - February 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm

There isn't enough information in this article to comment one way or the other. However, there is more information in this CNN article:


And as the previous poster points out, there is plenty of evidence now in the public domain about "probing" of the airlines security systems going on by people that sure seem to be Arabic speaking.

With the abortive attempt by someone that did not remotely "look like" a terrorist to destroy a US airplane and kill upwards of 250 people just behind us, the ACLU seems to be pretty clueless about matters involving national security and the security of airline passengers.

16. panacea - February 11, 2010 at 01:32 pm

jaysanderson: the problem with 911 wasn't that the screeners "didn't do their job" (the TSA didn't exist then btw). The problem is intelligence agencies weren't acting on information they had, and punishing officers who were trying to do their job.

There's nothing in the article that says the student was uncooperative. The TSA has people who have been pretending to be law enforcement since they were first created (the TSA is NOT a law enforcement agency): trying to "investigate" possible drug trafficing, money laundering, and other crimes by detaining anyone they like who has anything in their bags "unusual."

There was a case of the TSA seizing a large amount of cash from a car dealer on his way to purchase a car. Nothing the man said would move the TSA agent, even though money is not drugs or support for terrorists, and the role of the TSA is the safety of aircraft and nothing else.

Finally, the student has every right not to answer questions. Ever heard of the 5th amendment? Flash cards are not bombs, are not guns, knives, or even box cutters. The worst injury you can get with a flash card is a paper cut. Gathering intelligence or interfering with potential terrorists is not the job of the TSA. Their job is to keep guns, knives, and bombs off planes. Period.

17. wmartin46 - February 11, 2010 at 01:54 pm

> Flash cards are not bombs, are not guns, knives, or
> even box cutters.

From the CNN article:

Of the approximately 200 flash cards, about 10 had words such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist," George said.

This is an airport, where people speaking Arabic have been known to board aircraft and blow them up--killing thousands in the process. Have any kind of written material with these sorts of words written on them in any language should give the TSA pause to ask a few questions. Failure to answer should raise more than a few red flags.

18. 11231850 - February 11, 2010 at 03:15 pm

"Have any kind of written material with these sorts of words written on them in any language should give the TSA pause to ask a few questions."

Absolutely. That's why I never carry a newspaper.

19. readandwept - February 12, 2010 at 08:34 pm

I'm curious what the imagined terrorism scenario is in which the flashcard reading "bomb" somehow becomes... a bomb?

20. karlee60 - February 18, 2010 at 10:10 am

I have had a horrible experience at the Memphis airport, coming back from burying my mother in Germany. I have had a Green Card for more than 20 years and mine happens to be one without an expiration date. The security person at the airport told me that I am lucky he was letting me back in this time because my card was no longer valid. Then he informed that I better make plans to go back where I came from. I was shocked because I had never been treated like this before.

21. koroglu14 - February 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

I hope you get help where necessary.
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22. oscarw - February 26, 2010 at 03:26 pm

I travel twice a year on airlines and find TSA employees to be beyond the pale in terms of stupidity and boorishness. And when my family and I vacation in sunny climes, I get pulled for special searches because I'm the dark one in the group. This despite a heavy and unmistakeable "noo yawk" accent.
For those who think that anger over a five hour "detention" is being over sensitive, when I order someone detained or arrested, that instruction is given only when I have a tremendous amount of evidence supporting detention. It is a decision taken very seriously. I doubt TSA thinks or cares about the consequences of detaining anyone, (or keeping individuals on no-fly lists) particularly a student of the Arabic language.

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