Student jailed after Arabic flashcards provoke suspicion


When I’m trying to learn a new language, I’ll often use flashcards. For me, it isn’t just the flashcard itself, but the process of making the flashcards that makes them such a great learning aid. I find that I learn best when I go over everything several times, and writing out vocabulary – especially if the language uses a different alphabet or writing system, like Japanese – really helps hammer the words into my brain.

However, they didn’t prove to be such a great aid for 22 year old Pamona College physics major Nicholas George, who is studying Arabic to aid his hopes to become a US diplomat in the Middle East someday. As he boarded a flight from Philadelphia to California he figured he’d take some of his English-Arabic flashcards on board with him, to help him brush up on his vocabulary during the flight.

Sadly, since Arabic newspapers are rife with this kind of vocabulary these days, George’s flashcards included cards for words such as “terrorism” and “bomb”. This alone was enough to provoke so much suspicion from the TSA that he was handcuffed and was detained for 4 hours, and the offending flashcards were confiscated. He was asked if he was a member of a terrorist or pro-Islamic organization during his detention, to which he replied no, and was later released without an apology.

George is now suing the TSA.

I feel the TSA acts like it has a blank check as long as what it does is in the name of fighting terrorism. Of course, the TSA’s job is to keep us safe – but they have to follow the Constitution and respect rights.

[If the flashcards triggered such deep suspicion] then we’ve got a real 1st Amendment issue here. I have a right to study Arabic.

– Nicholas George, Pamona College student

Personally, I think this is ridiculous. George also admits that the stamps in his passport from Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan (from an overseas semester last year) as well as a book in his carryon that was “critical of US foreign policy” may also have added to the suspicion – but to me this is just another tale of airport authority paranoia.

Happily, this is pretty much the only circumstances I can think of whereby learning a language could land you in this much trouble…