Jihad George Joins Jihad Jane in Unlawful TSA Detention
By Ashley Scott, Illustrator, CMC ‘11
and Tom Boerigter, Contributing Writer, CMC ‘12
Last summer, as thousands of American college students boarded planes and made their way back to campus, one Pomona College senior experienced more than the usual headache associated with air travel. While attempting to board his California-bound plane at Philadelphia International Airport, physics major Nick George was handcuffed, detained, and interrogated for five hours. George’s August 28 ordeal not only caused him to miss his flight but also launched him into a lengthy lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
While going through routine airline security procedures, George was selected for additional screening. TSA suspicion stemmed from George’s possession of both Arabic flashcards and Clyde Prestowitz’s book Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. Though TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis claims that behavioral detection officers selected Nick for screening before they found his flashcards, this seems most unlikely; George emitted no threat of behavioral abnormality.
The screening officials asked George a peculiar set of questions pertaining to his personal feelings surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks and terrorism in general. Specifically, he had to answer, “Who did 9/11?” and whether he knew what language Osama bin Laden spoke. Following his removal from the airport terminal to a holding room, counterterrorism officials questioned George’s campus activities. He was asked whether he was a member of any Islamic student groups at Pomona, if he converted to Islam, and whether or not he sympathized with communist causes – as if communism were somehow relevant to his Arabic flashcards.
During his holding, George found it best to remain calm. He could not help but ponder the ridiculousness of his predicament, but he hoped that his cooperation could end the situation quickly. Though numerous people – a TSA official, the director of Philadelphia International Airport TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department, and two FBI counterterrorism officers – interrogated him, none informed George of the charges. All further attempts to garner information about the detention proved fruitless. To date, neither the TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department, nor the FBI has apologized.
After a local Philadelphia newspaper published a small news piece, the ACLU contacted George. Throughout this academic year, he has been working with his ACLU attorney, Ben Wizner, on the procedures necessary to file a lawsuit against the TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the FBI for infringing upon George’s rights pertaining to free speech and unlawful seizure. “The case is pretty simple,” George says. “There was no probable cause given for my interrogation.”
Nevertheless, the meanings of a few of his numerous Arabic cards and his past travels may have prompted officials’ alarm. Like thousands of other college students, George took the opportunity to study abroad during his time at Pomona; because of his academic background in Arabic, he chose to study in Amman, Jordan. Following his semester abroad, he also traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The most TSA concern may have come from the appearance of Sudan on this list, as it is on the State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.
Several of the Arabic flash cards contained translations of words such as “bomb” and “terrorist.” Yet, these vocabulary words make sense in context. To better understand the political opinions of Middle Eastern nations, George has been watching and translating Al Jazeera. George deems this first-hand coverage “crucial to the understanding of America’s place in the Middle East.”
On these contextual grounds, his unlawful treatment has no probable cause, which Black’s Law Dictionary defines as “reasonable grounds to suspect that a person has committed or is committing a crime.” Traveling to Sudan is not a crime. Neither is carrying Arabic flash cards or possessing Prestowitz’s book. George’s detention and interrogation truly call into question the upholding of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
The ACLU suit will take months or years to complete. The expected motion to dismiss from the FBI, Philadelphia Police Department, and TSA will take almost two months to file. Then, a counter-file to block the dismissal will double that time. Ultimately, if the defendants choose not to settle with George, another seven to eight months will pass until the case reaches court.
George thinks the time and energy required for the case will prove signficant; he hopes to set a precedent for passenger rights that could help the millions of Americans that fly each year. “This case is not about me but about the rights of all Americans who travel,” George says. “While many will say that my predicament was a result of necessary safety precautions in these troubled times, sacrificing constitutional rights is never good for the safety of any citizen no matter the circumstances.”
Many students would consider an experience like George’s a negative effect on the beginning of their school year, but George thinks otherwise. He has not allowed the event to affect his crucial senior year studies or his future plans. He still hopes to one day use his Arabic skills to start a career with the Foreign Service, and also plans on returning to the Middle East soon to apply both his language skills and physics degree as a sponsored student assisting with water projects in Palestinian territories. Still, when security checkpoints can take hours, a five hour detention spurred by a set of flash cards of a language spoken by 280 million people was a dangerous waste of resources and a violation of the constitutional rights of an upstanding American citizen. George questions the potential ramifications of his detainment: “What if while the TSA, the Philadelphia Police, and the FBI were mulling over my flashcards some real danger had presented itself?”