Friday, February 19, 2010

Don’t Even Think About Studying Arabic!

When Pomona College Student Nicholas George went through airport security in Philadelphia, he wasn’t expecting to end up handcuffed and interrogated by the FBI on suspicion of being a terrorist. Though he was eventually released, the incident brings up a wide variety of issues from free speech to civil rights. What was George’s suspicious activity? Arabic flashcards. Read the full article here.

A student of Arabic at Pomona, George was studying vocabulary. Unfortunately one of the flashcards listed the term “terrorist”, another listed “bomb.” While possibly jarring to the TSA agent who inspected them, as George indicated, the cards were for Media Arabic (newspapers) and these are common terms in both American and Arab media stories. The biggest part of this issue stems from one thought, the TSA agent would never have seen the offending terms if they hadn’t felt the need to search George’s cards, simply because they had Arabic letters on them. While certainly in this hyper sensitive security environment, the presence of Arabic flashcards might indeed trigger a “random search,” but assuming there were no bomb materials or other weapons on his person or in his luggage, George should have been bid a good day. The manner in which this situation escalated is the most legally troubling aspect of this entire incident.

During his FBI interrogation, George was asked if he was a Muslim or if he belonged to any pro-Islamic groups. Oddly the response to this should be, so what if he was? Within the context of this incident are the underlying beliefs that all Muslims are terrorists. What is even more intriguing, is the case this incident makes against the differentiation between religious belief and action. This distinction, as seen in Mormon polygamy decisions from the late 19th century, is a common interpretation of the free exercise clause. Ultimately you can believe whatever you like, and that is protected by the Constitution, however it does not mean all actions, even those stemming from those beliefs, are likewise protected. You can believe that your religion tells you to go around smacking people with a stick, but you may still get prosecuted for assault if you actually do it. The belief/action relationship is what is at the heart of this case. The TSA and FBI might actually have a footing on free speech grounds if they could establish that the presence of an Arabic flashcard was highly likely to incite panic, but other than this, their real argument is that somehow the possession of Arabic flashcards is either a clear and present danger to the security of the airplane or that a desire to study Arabic presents a necessary and sufficient condition to assume terrorist activity is imminent. More broadly, this incident suggests that suspicion of being a Muslim or holding pro-Islamic or even pro-Arabic sentiment (without any action whatsoever) justifies detention and interrogation – likely without any representation.

From the security flag based solely on language to interrogation stemming from the presence of two words to incarnation based on potential religious or political affiliations, this entire incident is a violation of almost every aspect of the first amendment, purely in the name of fear. Some civil liberties might need to be stretched in the name of security, but when that stretching expands to include thoughts and beliefs without any action, we are in violation of both the law and the very spirit of the civilization that the added security measures are designed to protect.


Dallas M said...

I agree with this post whole hardly John S. It seems that after the Sept 11 attack the TSA has been trained to the letter to spot anybody who could be deemed a terrorist. And I sympathize with this college student due to one of my friends going through the same scenario, but instead of cards he was talking in Arabic on his cell-phone and was immediately pulled over for questioning. And when it comes to the free exercise clause, the beliefs one has are always protected, but when it comes to their actions they’re constantly being scrutinized by others who deem them as hostile. If this keeps up who knows what will be the TSA’s next step in their security crackdown on travelers.

Rob K said...

While I completely agree with the spirit and concerns of the original post and the subsequent comment, I do find some issues in here that seem to be overlooked. It's a tough world we live in, and I sympathize that this student was stopped, but the fact of the matter is that he was carrying flashcards that had the words 'Bomb' and 'Terrorist.' If I were walking through an airport with flashcards that said the same in English, I would not be surprised if the TSA found a problem with this. The issue at hand is the blatant racial or cultural (as indicated by the Arabic language) profiling, but when it comes down to it, these are the kinds of words that incite fear and panic. If he said them out-loud, he would have been arrested; if someone on the plane saw them and freaked out, he would have been arrested. It sucks, but the TSA did what was necessary once the cards were discovered to have these words.