Back in 2009, a college kid named Nicholas George was arrested by the TSA in Philly as he attempted to board his plane. Their excuse? He was learning Arabic in school, and had brought along flashcards to study on the trip.
His interested in Arabic stemmed from a desired career in — you guessed it — counter-terrorism. So needless to say, the cards included “phrases like ‘bomb,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘explosion,’ and ‘to target.’” Seeing right through this transparent terrorist plot, the TSA pounced!
Here’s an actual conversation that occurred in the process of his arrest:
TSA AGENT: Do you know who did 9/11?
GEORGE: Osama bin Laden.
TSA AGENT: Do you know what language he spoke?
TSA AGENT: Do you see why these cards are suspicious?
The lesson, of course, is that we should never speak or study the language of anyone who ever did or planned terrible things. German students, be silent! From now on, I know I’ll be ommunicating-cay exclusively-ay in-ay ig-Pay atin-Lay, e-thay ue-tray anguage-lay of-ay innocence-ay.
But seriously, this is an appalling example of the TSA’s true function: security theater. The agents certainly may have meant well, but their entire operation has been shown time and again to be simply incapable of doing anything but violating our rights. Indeed, “Airports are effectively rights-free zones”:
Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.)
Unfortunately, when George attempted to sue the agents responsible for his arrest, the story becomes more appalling still: The judge “ruled that ‘George’s factual allegations do not establish that [the TSA and FBI agents] violated a Fourth Amendment right.’”
The problem, of course, is what an incredibly vague standard such a ruling creates. If studying a language used by terrorists (and also, you know, some 420 million other people) is enough to warrant questioning and arrest, what could reading a book about Islam justify? It’s not just the Fourth Amendment which is in danger here; it’s also the First.