TSA detains Middle-Eastern Studies major for carrying Arabic-English flashcards

Nicholas George, a senior in Middle-Eastern Studies at Pomona College, was detained, handcuffed, and intensively questioned by the TSA while trying to catch a flight back to school from Philadelphia. The TSA guards found English-Arabic flashcards in his luggage and said that because Osama bin Laden spoke Arabic, "these cards are suspicious." The FBI was called in, and an agent called him a "fucking idiot" when he asked why he was being held. After being asked if he was a communist or a Muslim, he was released. He was not read his rights at any time.

The ACLU has taken on his case, and they're suing.

TSA supervisor: "You know who did 9/11?"

George: "Osama bin Laden."

TSA supervisor: "Do you know what language he spoke?"

George: "Arabic."

TSA supervisor: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

Student Handcuffed for English-Arabic Flashcards Sues TSA, FBI (Thanks, Rob!)


  1. “You know who did 9/11?”

    good fucking god. cream of the fucking crop.

    I hope this kid and the ACLU take the TSA to the ropes over this. My sympathies go out to you, man. I bet that was super unpleasant.

  2. At the start of WWI, Woodrow Wilson enacted war powers that effectively banned German language, culture, and identity. German street names were changed, hamburgers became “freedom sandwhiches”, sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, german books were publicly burned, german opera recordings were smashed, countless people were arrested, harassed, detained, questioned, jailed, and abused.

    To think, nearly a century later, nothing has changed.

    ~D. Walker

    1. Kitchener, Ontario was originally named Berlin. They changed the name during WWI. Probably fortunate in the long run. Living near London, Ontario, I know how confusing it can be whenever a city named London is mentioned on the news. You have to figure out which one they’re talking about based on the context of the story. Even the local tv station will sometimes air international stories that will refer to London when they mean the larger one in the UK.

    1. I guess my brother better not practice his Arabic calligraphy at any airports then…

      Chances are you’d get busted for Hebrew or Devanagari or any script that looks just a little too squiggly for the US of A. I doubt that the TSA is hiring linguists.

  3. They don’t have to give a Miranda warning unless they want to use what you say to prosecute you. If you confessed to being a terrorist without a Miranda warning, they wouldn’t be able to use that confession in court, even if they record it. It isn’t illegal to question someone without a Miranda warning (even while detained), and your rights aren’t violated unless they try use that information in court. Since they didn’t prosecute him in court, the fact that they didn’t read a Miranda warning is inconsequential.

    This situation was simply the TSA, the Philadelphia police, and the FBI trying to intimidate this poor man and unlawfully detaining him. Just having Arabic flashcards won’t meet the test of reasonable suspicion. I hope he wins.

    1. “At no time did the officer inform Mr. George of any rights he retained, including…the right to leave the airport rather than get on the flight,”
      That’s probably the most important right. Giving him the impression that he couldn’t legally leave was the big abuse of power.

      Man, can you imagine all the useful work two FBI agents could do over the course of 5 hours…

  4. there has got to be more to the story. this is unbelievable. if this is even remotely true, everyone involved should be fired on the spot.

    1. You really think the US is incapable of doing something like this without good reason? Ha, I guess you’re not Arab.

  5. “The FBI was called in, and an agent called him a ‘fucking idiot’ “………

    You know, for a moment there I really thought the FBI agent meant the TSA agent.

    What kind of imbeciles work there? I thought Western intelligence services already have touble finding Arabic speakers.

    1. “What kind of imbeciles work there? I thought Western intelligence services already have trouble finding Arabic speakers.”

      And I suspect it’s stupid crap like this that contributes to our lack of Arabic speakers.

    2. That is what I was hoping; I think my mind was re-writing what I read so it MADE SENSE. This makes no sense. I hope everyone is hung out by the short and curlies. I doubt it’ll happen, but that’s what I’d like.

  6. I’m a college student and, until this semester, I studied Arabic (incidentally, in the same program as Nick, at Claremont McKenna College). I’ve flown a number of times with my Arabic textbooks and notebooks in my carry-on, and I’ve even done Arabic assignments on the plane, and I’ve never been hassled.

    So this is probably — thankfully — an isolated incident. There is no blanket “lets harass middle-class white guys who study Arabic at expensive colleges” policy.

    I, of course, completely believe Nick George’s story (after all, he’s stuck with it since August) and it seems plausible. I completely support the ACLU’s lawsuit and I’d love to see the involved cops, TSA screeners and FBI agents lose their jobs for this abuse of power and pure stupidity.

  7. “You know who did the Oklahoma bombing?”
    “Timothy McVeigh”
    “You know what language he…let’s forget that line of questioning.”

    1. Well wasn’t he a veteran of the first Gulf War?
      Clearly McVey was turned by Saddam personally and sent back as an Al Quaeda sleeper agent.

      I would be perfect for your secret police if I weren’t a muslim communist.

      Stalin ackbar!

    2. Ha ha ha, I remember all the anti-towelhead remarks and “Let’s build a wall around America” ranting in the first few hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.

  8. @ Anonymous # 4:
    That is the funniest thing I have ever read. Even though I am not an American, I think “liberty cabbage” will be finding its way into my regular vocabulary, thankyou for the invaluable factoid.

  9. Not the first time I’ve heard about the TSA detaining people unlawfully at an airpot. A Ron Paul supporter got asked repeatedly what he was doing with about 1000 dollars in his bag on his way from a support rally. There should be a recording of it on youtube.

    Wait, doesn’t Bin Laden speak Pashto?

  10. Ah, I wonder if I would’ve had the guts…

    “Do you know who did 9/11?”
    “What the fuck do you mean no?”
    “The press and the president at the time says it’s Osama Bin Laden, but I’m not sure if the government isn’t lying to me, and the press is too stupid to know it.”

    Wait, that makes me sound like a truther doesn’t it? I mean, I’m certain there were no planted explosives and that the 2 buildings came down because of structural weaknesses due to 2 jets hitting them, but can I really trust someone (of the Dubya administration!) saying that OBL was behind it?

    This news is quite incre-fucking-dible, actually… but I’d be more amazed if anyone gets punished for it, I bet the fuck no…

  11. Go ACLU.

    I wonder if this sort of case makes CMC students think differently about the ACLU.

    I wonder what the right-wing spin on this will be. This shows that the TSA and FBi ought to be privatized? Anyone heard how they’re spinning it yet?

  12. Bastards. BASTARDS. After going after all of the TLAs involved, I hope there’s some room for civil action against the individual TSA supervisor and FBI agents.

  13. “a communist or a Muslim”

    Nice to see that the TSA know who the threat really is.


    As much as I want to go back to the US (terking in the Sierra Nevadas again), it’s crap like this that makes me think I’ll head somewhere else on holiday.

  14. I find it suspicious that he’s been learning Arabic for 3 years, and yet he’s using flash cards that looks like they’re for 5 year old kids. One picture, and one word for each of the 28 letters. After 3 years, he should have been able to read normal Arabic books and newspapers.

    1. Strange, I find that pretty normal. I know a fellow ESL student that uses a children’s English dictionary. Typical suggestion for students on 2nd/multiple languages. As well as translate common children’s fairytale stories.

      I think Boing Boing’s using stock pictures…

      And 3 years may not be straight up studying. I’ve had 3 years of French in high school. I cannot read “normal French books and newspapers.” But that is because I stink at languages.

    2. I find it suspicious that he’s been learning Arabic for 3 years, and yet he’s using flash cards that looks like they’re for 5 year old kids.

      That is presumably not a picture of his actual flash cards, but the second Google Images result for [arabic flash cards].

    3. I was thinking the same thing. A senior should have learned Arabic by that time, but maybe there are other things involved in the curriculum, like history and … well, I don’t know what a Middle Eastern studies degree is composed of, but if Arabic isn’t in the first 2 years, I can’t think where else it would be. I’m trying not to be cynical about it, though.

  15. OMG! And I have been flying with German books all these years!

    “Do you know what language Hitler spoke?”

  16. TSA: Do you know who ordered the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing 300.000 random people in seconds by burning them alive?

    You: Roosevelt.

    TSA: Do you know which language he spoke?

    You: English.

    TSA: Yes, and that’s why no American will ever go to heaven! You shalt not pass.

  17. How exactly would one construct a meaningful sentence with 24 words including camel, goat, fruit, grasshopper and whale?

  18. Crazy how enthusiastic the BoingBoingers are for firing the lame-ass rent-a-cops that the TSA employs at local airports.

    Do you really REALLY think that if a few of them get fired that your civil rights improve? It’s like trying to stop rain by flicking away individual droplets.

    Seriously, do you think that finding replacement cogs will present any problem whatsoever?

    1. I don’t quite understand your sentiment. Are we supposed to put our head in the sand? While daunting I don’t see why we should put up with sub standard service from our government paid entities.

      We should be alright with them spending millions, and millions of dollars on the scatter scanners that provide no notable increase in security levels (even according to the TSA and Homeland Security) except to create a warm and fuzzy feeling?

      I know many people who like myself feel that the money would be better served by properly training the TSA agents. When we received horrible training from our DMV agents in our home town we threw perused our government for a redress. Their first response was the same, to help the ineffectual agents and their acerbic attitudes with a new system. When the problem persisted and they tried other ways of “improving the system” with other gadgets that were ineffective… The problem persisted. However they eventually started training and spending their money on the improving the agents… The problem was reduced to a quite manageable level.

      If we continue to throw our hands up in the air and say.. Oh well this is the best we can expect…. then you are right. It is the best we will be able to expect.

      1. tizroc at #48 says:
        “If we continue to throw our hands up in the air and say.. Oh well this is the best we can expect…. then you are right. It is the best we will be able to expect.”

        Please reread the post of mine to which you are replying. Nowhere do I advocate ACCEPTANCE of the erosion of civil liberties. Putting those words in my mouth is offensive and you need to be much more careful.

        My point was that hoping to reform the TSA from the bottom up, firing one idiot at a time is nonsense*. Yes, of course get these particular idiots, sure. But don’t think that they aren’t instantly replaced.

        You invoke the concept of “security theater” but please consider there may be an analogous concept of “activism theater” … many of the early posters were taking so much satisfaction in imagining these rascals getting fired that I thought it was worth deflating their joy a bit. (Call me buzzkill, I guess.)

        * With all due respect to your touching anecdote about local progress, I feel you may be underestimating the challenge in overcoming the pervasive anti-Arabic bias shamelessly embedded in policy.

  19. “The FBI was called in, and an agent called him a ‘fucking idiot’ when he asked why he was being held”

    Wait, a TSA agent or an FBI agent called who an idiot?

  20. That’s not a children’s dictionary. It’s an “A for apple, B for bee”. Maybe you might want to use that for the first week, but not after 3 years …

    The idea about flicking away is the rain drops is that the other rain drops will get scared from watching a few of the fellows getting flicked away, and start trying to act less stupid. Hmm … bad analogy.

  21. Sir Bedevere could have been a TSA Supervisor =D

    Sir Bedevere: There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
    Peasant 1: Are there? Oh well, tell us.
    Sir Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
    Peasant 1: Burn them.
    Sir Bedevere: And what do you burn, apart from witches?
    Peasant 1: More witches.
    Peasant 2: Wood.
    Sir Bedevere: Good. Now, why do witches burn?
    Peasant 3: …because they’re made of… wood?
    Sir Bedevere: Good. So how do you tell whether she is made of wood?
    Peasant 1: Build a bridge out of her.
    Sir Bedevere: But can you not also build bridges out of stone?
    Peasant 1: Oh yeah.
    Sir Bedevere: Does wood sink in water?
    Peasant 1: No, no, it floats!… It floats! Throw her into the pond!
    Sir Bedevere: No, no. What else floats in water?
    Peasant 1: Bread.
    Peasant 2: Apples.
    Peasant 3: Very small rocks.
    Peasant 1: Cider.
    Peasant 2: Gravy.
    Peasant 3: Cherries.
    Peasant 1: Mud.
    Peasant 2: Churches.
    Peasant 3: Lead! Lead!
    King Arthur: A Duck.
    Sir Bedevere: …Exactly. So, logically…
    Peasant 1: If she weighed the same as a duck… she’s made of wood.
    Sir Bedevere: And therefore…
    Peasant 2: …A witch!

  22. Boarding a plane in Germany bound for Spain a few years ago my wife was stopped by customs officials for suspicious looking items in her hand luggage. After some terse questions her bag was opened up to reveal the threatening items.

    Children’s stories written in Arabic.

    On with the crusades!

  23. TSA supervisor: “You know who did 9/11?”

    George: “Osama bin Laden.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you know what language he spoke?”

    George: “Arabic. Do you know who inveted Algebra?”

    TSA supervisor: “No.”

    George: “Muhammad ibn MÅ«sā al-KhwārizmÄ«”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you know what language he spoke?”

    George: “Actually he spoke Persian.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?

    George: “No, but at least we’ve exchanged one fact in this whole exchange.”

  24. The FBI was called in, and an agent called him a “fucking idiot” when he asked why he was being held.

    Count me in among the several who were completely confused by this sentence. You have way too many “hims” and “hes,” which makes it completely ambiguous.

    The last person mentioned, in the sentence before, was the TSA agent, so I, like several above I guess, read this as “The FBI was called in, and an agent called [the TSA agent] a “fucking idiot” when [the FBI agent] asked why [Nicholas] was being held.”

    Reading the article, which is unambiguous, makes it clear that it was “”The FBI was called in, and an agent called [Nicholas] a “fucking idiot” when [Nicholas] asked why [Nicholas] was being held.”

    Pity. I had a ray of hope for a second.

  25. TSA supervisor: “You know who did 9/11?”

    George: “Osama bin Laden.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you know how many fingers he has?”

    George: “10?”

    TSA supervisor: “And how many fingers do you have? 10. Now is that a coincidence or something more suspicious?”

  26. Clearly one of the two was a fucking idiot, it just happened to be the agent and not the guy being held.

  27. #26 Well, hopefully, the guy also win a couple of million dollars. That will encourage the system to change!

  28. TSA supervisor: “You know who did the Oklahoma City bombing?”

    George: “Timothy McVeigh.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you know what language he spoke?”

    George: “English.”

    TSA supervisor: “And what language are we speaking now?”

    George: “English.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you see why you are suspicious?”

  29. I thought Mohamed Atta and several other folks organized and committed the 9-11 attacks. To the best of what I’ve been told Bin Laden provided spiritual and maybe financial support, however was nowhere near the US at the time of the attacks. Maybe my sources are biased against the USA?

  30. I leave for a week for the Super Bowl in New Orleans followed by a “broom Jumping” ceremony preformed by Coco Robicheaux and the TSA is still bat shit stupid, fine. The wedding made more sense than this, and there was Voodoo involved! Grumble grumble grumble.

  31. “They followed up by asking whether Mr. George was a member of any ‘pro-Islamic groups’ on campus or any ‘communist groups.’ ”

    Right, because only muslim or communists carry Arabic-English language flash cards?

    We haven’t had a viable communist threat since the fall of Russia, why the hell are government officials still scared of communists like they are some sort of bogey man waiting to steal our children in the night?

    1. Heh. Last time I looked, the communists live in China and hold over 1 trillion USD – no wonder the TSA ‘s concerned.

      1. China is already becoming/has become a capitalist country, not because of ideological or political change, the business men there are enjoying a luxurious lifestyle thanks to our debt and China’s industrial revolution. We cannot survive without them; they cannot survive without us.

  32. Do you know what would help protect us from Arabic speaking baddies? More Arabic speaking goodies so we have a clue what they’re up to.

  33. A communist? WTF? I was about to type that it is actually quite legal to be a communist, that you can vote for the communist party in American elections… but of course it’s legal to be a Muslim too (and probably rather more common).


  34. So my sixth grade son should NOT study Arabic,like he’s been doing this year, at his school? Is that the lesson we should take from this? His school, Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis, won one of seven hard-to-obtain, multi-year grants to develop Arabic language studies in a few American schools. Just so we might, in a few years, perhaps, develop a core of Arabic-speaking Americans, to, oh, you know, talk to Arabic speakers. Cuz maybe that would, I don’t know, help us to understand a few other Arabic speakers who happen to not like us very much. Plus Arabic is a useful language to know, like Farsi or Mandarin or Spanish.

    I’m just baffled by this. I also call “context” and wonder if this person was doing something more obnoxious and got called out for the flash cards.

  35. Wow, the dog and pony show that is the TSA continues! and this time, they brought in a clown from the FBI!!! Man I am glad I am alive to watch this!!

  36. TSA supervisor: “I see you have a chemistry book here. Do you know what they use to make underwear bombs?”

    George: “Um…chemicals?”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you see why this chemistry book is suspicious?”

    George: “No.”

    TSA supervisor: “And speaking of underwear, I couldn’t help but notice that you were wearing underwear when you went through the Violation of Dignity Scan….”

  37. “Wait, doesn’t Bin Laden speak Pashto?”

    Possibly, but as a Saudi Arabian national, he mainly speaks arabic.

  38. TSA supervisor: “Oh, a physics book, eh?”

    George: “Yeah. I have a test coming up.”

    TSA supervisor: “Do you know what the Germans used to build and fly V-2 rockets during World War II?”

    George: “Um…principles of physics?”

    TSA supervisor: “And did you know that they used those rockets on the British, who are one of of our staunchest allies?”

    George: “Yes, I guess I did know that.”

    TSA supervisor: “So you see why you’re now going to be held for several hours and verbally abused?”

  39. Wow.

    God forbid anyone learn Arabic. Because I don’t know, maybe they want to study that part of the world and possibly figure out a better solution to some of the problems there. We can’t have that.

    Also, good work focusing on the real threats, TSA.

    It just reminds me of the time one of my friends was made to surrender his tiny keychain pocketknife, with an itty bitty one inch blade, before going on board the USS Constitution. “Yes,” he said to us later, quietly, “because I am totally going to hijack the USS Constitution from the Navy sailors on board with my tiny knife, sail it out into the harbor all by myself, and I don’t know, throw the cannonballs at Boston because there is no gunpowder on board.”

    1. “It just reminds me of the time one of my friends was made to surrender his tiny keychain pocketknife, with an itty bitty one inch blade, before going on board the USS Constitution.”

      To be fair, I imagine that’s mainly because a huge number of mouthbreathers can’t seem to keep from carving their name or whatever into anything they encounter that happens to be made of wood, even if that wood happens to be part of something with as much historical importance as Old Ironsides.

  40. just to clear things up… the FBI called Mr. George a f**king idiot…

    unfortunately, much as we hope, the FBI agent did not call the TSA agent a f**king idiot…

    one of the books Mr. George was carrying was rather a stupid book to be taking through an airport checkpoint… almost guaranteed to set them off… “Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, “ by Clyde Prestowitz, and it didn’t help that he’d traveled abroad to Islamic countries including Ethiopia and Indonesia…

    1. What truly amazes me here is not what happened to Mr. George but all of the shock and awe ya’all are expressing about it. Clearly you have no idea what those of us with passports full of Arabic deal with every time we re-enter our own country.

    2. @60: You’re granting too much credit to the TSA mall-cop for having the first clue what the word “unilateralism” might mean. His reading materials were secondary to his “crime” of having scary, squiggly writing on some loose pieces of paper.

  41. TSA – Because every country needs a group of asshats!

    FBI – Because every group of asshats needs a larger group of asshats to share their stupidity with.

  42. bit of topic but i think that someone could also study arabic because he is interested in the language itself or in Arab history, poetry, art etc. the Arabic language is not just something good to have on your curriculum in order to land a 3letter agency job. and i believe that many Arabs speak other languages. peace with the Arab world is not lost in translation.

  43. I’m always suspicious of these horror stories.
    Not that he was a terrorist or deserved this in anyway, but just because this guy earned some sympathy doesn’t mean he wasn’t being and asshole, or making jokes about the possibility of the exact situation he found himself and concerning other customers. Either way this kind of stuff breeds fear where there shouldn’t be so I hope the security get a little something.

  44. Once law enforcement gets involved in any situation, you should invoke your rights. With the police, but especially with state or federal bureaus of investigation.

    Do not speak to them without a lawyer.

    Do not ever consent to any search.

    Ask if you are free to leave and if you are, leave.

    There are plenty of innocent people in prison right now because they did not follow these rules. The inconvenience of not being able to catch your flight is not worth the risk. You cannot trust law enforcement not to make mistakes or even deliberately press false charges.

    And to the people saying that this case seems fishy, I dougt the ACLU takes a case without investigating it first.

  45. my husband was profiled over the weekend and forced to do the body scanner at the airport. it was humiliating to him and it made me tear up. he was the most gentle looking person in the line and because of his skin color he was taken aside… everyone else in line was either white or black

    it’s awful.

  46. Huh. This happens to me pretty much every time (minus the swearing) I land in the US. Then again, the Arabic happens to be in my name. Anywho, someone said the flashcards were for kids- just the flashcards pictured for illustration. I’ve seen more advanced ones with journalistic Arabic (practically a dialect unto itself).

    I don’t care what book he was carrying. This is America. That used to mean something.

  47. Last time I looked, the communists live in China and hold over 1 trillion USD – no wonder the TSA ‘s concerned.

    If you actually believe that China is, or indeed has ever been, a communist country then you didn’t pay much attention to politics in school.

    1. Going by some definitions, even the USSR wasn’t communist. Can we agree that they and China are communist enough for casual discussion?

    2. Actually, it doesn’t matter. Rabid panic against communism isn’t actually fueled by politic issues – it’s just a matter of „weird foreigners being un-american and vaguely threatening“. It’s the same mob that accept the U.S. constitution and her institutions as divine, but disses the ACLU any time it can.

  48. Damn, I was hoping the FBI agent called the TSA agent a “fucking idiot”! Shit like this saddens me greatly… wish I knew how to say that in Arabic. “knock-knock (at my door)… come with us miss!”

    1. “*Du-du* Ta’alee ma’ana ya sayidti!”

      Though Arab secret police won’t use the nicety of “sayidti” (miss). Don’t worry, the Fibbies will drop the courtesy readily enough- as we’ve seen here.

  49. Back in the 80’s the U.S. Army sent my brother to language school for Arabic. Guess that means the army is run by communist Muslim terrorists. Fire the entire TSA (except for the janitors and secretaries and other such innocent by-standers).

  50. Watch the CNN story. I think BB’s presentation of this is a little misleading. The guy wasn’t carrying kids flash cards, as depicted. He was carrying hand-written cards, up to 10 of which had phrases like “bomb” and “terrorist” on them. And according to the TSA, he was acting erratically prior to screening. Sounds like he was looking for trouble. The TSA didn’t deny him boarding; they interviewed him, and eventually determined he wasn’t a risk. I think they did their job correctly. Probably a little harsh on the interrogation, but at least they asked. And frankly, these days, what idiot would pull cards out of his pocket at the checkpoint with the words “bomb” and “terrorist” on them?

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