Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Case of Nick George [UPDATED]

[For updated commentary, scroll below the video.]

When I was this man's age, I was studying Arabic in college, just like him. That was in the early 1990's. At that time, things seemed pretty bad politically -- but I never dreamed of being arrested at an airport merely because I studied the Arabic language.

In 2002, an investigator at the Orlando airport discovered a music CD in my luggage by a Nubian musician. On the cover was a photograph of the artist wearing a traditional turban. He questioned me, with studied casualness, about the origin of the artist and my interest in the music. Except for a little extra attention, I got on my plane without incident. I never thought it would turn out otherwise.

What reportedly happened to Nick George is a shock and an outrage. Our security does not depend on this kind of repressive behavior. Pending a fair hearing so as to hear both sides of this tale, the TSA must answer to this man and to the American people.

UPDATE 2/22/10

There are details about this case that the ACLU video does not disclose.

Mr. George also had a small pair of speakers in his luggage, and these were examined as one would expect. When the flashcards were examined and Mr. George was questioned about the events of 9/11, he exhibited "fear reflexes," in the words of TSA. A check of his passport showed that Mr. George has traveled to several middle eastern countries as part of his college studies.

Any one of these items, and certainly all three, would attract the curiosity of a security professional at an airport. What we expect of a professional is to apply good common sense. The speakers clearly turned out to be just a pair of speakers; Mr. George's international travel is explained by the documented fact that he is an exchange student.

His flash cards were commercially produced, printed flash cards that might be found on the person of anyone studying Arabic seriously. Some of the vocabulary words included references to crime and war, which police regarded as suspicious. Where is the common sense? For the last decade, one of the central current events has been international military conflict in the middle east over the issue of terrorism. A person studying for fluency in a foreign language would certainly require the vocabulary to discuss those events. On the other hand, a committed terrorist would not require a flash card reminding him of the Arabic word for "terrorism."

Common sense, ladies and gentlemen.

As for "fear reflexes," there is no indication that Mr. George attempted to flee. Did he stammer? Break out in a sweat? Avoid eye contact? I do all of these things when I am nervous. Mr. George is a 22 year old man who likely exhibited normal nervous responses when he felt he was an object of suspicion. No detail revealed yet suggests otherwise.

As I related above, I've had airport security personnel take an interest in me. It has happened more than once. My baggage has included middle-eastern music and books about the middle east, as well as other political literature, including some that might be taken as "radical." Had my investigator at the Orlando airport (referred to above) produced that Hamza el Din C.D. from my bag and immediately started questioning me about the events of 9/11, I likely would have become nervous as well.

Fortunately, my investigator exhibited common sense. He took a look, saw that I was not a danger, and passed me on. That's what a professional does.

Mr. George was certainly worth a second look by the TSA. They have a job to do, and it would have been their business to check out his bag, inspect the speakers, and ask him a couple of questions. Common sense would have shown them that this kid is who he said he was, a legitimate student of the Arabic language and culture, with no evidence of involvement in any criminal or suspicious activity. And they would have waved him through.

Unfortunately, as many a traveler has suspected when they endure a trip through an airport, common sense does not always prevail with the TSA. Nonetheless, absent a lawsuit, the TSA wins the argument by dint of its authority over us.


quid said...

I hadn't heard or read about this. I don't know what happened after they held him for 4 hours, but I'll probably keep an eye on the story. The contrast with what happened to you really tells the story of a loss of innocence. I think TSA overreacted here...I don't know that an ACLU suit is necessary.


Algernon said...

I wish such things weren't necessary, but litigation is frequently the only way an abuse such as this gets aired and redressed. The TSA certainly is not known for holding itself accountable and saying, "Gee, you're right, we really messed up."

Kelly said...

I would be interested in knowing the outcome of this, too. Definitely an overreaction on the part of the TSA.

Algernon said...

Please return to the post for some new details and updated commentary (below the video).

Ji Hyang said...

Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot column on Salon is my go-to for TSA analyses.
You'll find a kindred spirit there.

Kelly said...

It's been my experience that many people truly don't possess much common sense and those that do don't always exercise it.

Thanks for the update.

Algernon said...

Good point, Kelly. Makes you wonder why it's called "common" sense.