George vs. TSA raises important questions for Arab travelers

Arabic flashcards as terror paraphernalia?

George vs. TSA is a troubling case.

The ACLU is suing the TSA on behalf of Nick George for the violation of Mr. George's constitutional rights. This lawsuit arises from an incident that occurred in the Philadelphia airport. A non- Arab student, Nick George, was perceived as a threat simply because he had Arabic/English flashcards. These cards were found during the routine TSA screening process.

Looking for real threat

One can get in trouble not only for possessing drugs, it is also a crime to possess "drug paraphernalia." It seems a similar logic is working for the TSA as to Arabic, "the language that Bin Laden speaks." In the "War on Terror" it seems there is this sense that Arabic language material is "terror paraphernalia." One can only empathize with the young college student Nick George who found himself, due to Arabic material on him, being treated as a terror suspect until being proven innocent, a not uncommon experience for Arab and Muslim travelers. However, the real troubling aspect of this matter is how it was handled by government officials in different agencies and different levels of responsibility. Three TSA screeners, one TSA supervisor, one police officer, and a police sergeant all thought that Arabic/English flashcards are indicators of a threat. The FBI were called and two FBI agents spent half an hour engaging in the "art," as one FBI agent put it, of determining whether Mr. George is a "real threat."

ACLU press release

The ACLU press release reads in part 'ACLU Sues Over Unconstitutional Airport Detention And Interrogation Of College Student Carrying Arabic Flashcards- Incident At Philadelphia Airport Highlights Misdirected Security Efforts, Says ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Pennsylvania today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Pomona College student Nicholas George, who was abusively interrogated, handcuffed and detained for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport because of a set of English-Arabic flashcards he was carrying in connection with his college language studies. "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," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "Nick George was handcuffed, locked in a cell for hours and questioned about 9/11 simply because he has chosen to study Arabic, a language that is spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world. This sort of harassment of innocent travelers is a waste of time and a violation of the Constitution."

What language did Bin Laden speak?

The press release the ACLU explains fully why the Nick George is troubling from a constitutional viewpoint and from a general public viewpoint. However, the complaint filed by the ACLU highlights serious concerns, particular to Arab and perhaps Muslim travelers, that the ACLU press release does not mention. The TSA supervisor questioned Mr. George in a "hostile and aggressive manner." The questioning and responses, in part, went as follows:
"How do you feel about 9/11?
Mr. George responded that he thought 9/11 was a terrible event.
You obviously read. You know who did 9/11?
Osama Bin Laden.
Do you know what language he spoke?
At this point the TSA supervisor held up Mr. George's flashcards and stated: Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

The FBI interview: The Art of Determining Real Threat

Mr. George was interviewed by two FBI agents who were called to assess whether Mr. George was a "real threat." One FBI agent asked Mr. George: "Are you Islamic?" Mr. George responded he was not. The agent followed up , asking whether Mr. George was a member of any "pro-Islamic groups" on campus. After approximately 30 minutes of questioning, one of the FBI agents concluded as follows: "Our job is more an art than a science. The police call us to evaluate whether there is a real threat . You are not a real threat." What if the student was an Arab or a Muslim and/or belonged to a pro- Palestinian group such as the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement? How would these factors have played a role in the art of threat assessment?

Questions raised by the George affair

The way the George affair was handled by the TSA and the FBI raises serious questions and is deeply troubling. It validates the fears that Bin Laden and the other radical terrorists and those using the terror attacks to push for an anti Islam/anti Arab agenda have succeeded in criminalizing the faith of 1.3 billion people and the language spoken by at least 300 million people. Who trained the TSA that Arabic is the "language of Bin Laden" and that those who want to learn it are to be viewed as suspicious? Gibran Khalil Gibran also spoke and wrote in Arabic? The Muslim philosopher Al Rumi also wrote in Arabic? How did Bin Laden succeed in owning the language? How could seven government officials, including two highly trained law enforcement officials from the FBI, all deem the flash cards as grounds for reasonable suspicion of involvement with terror and thus justifying detention and "hostile and aggressive" questioning from a TSA supervisor?

To read the complaint go to To see a video of Nick George and Ben Wizner speaking about the case go to


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