Nicholas George planned to brush up on his Arabic vocabulary during a flight in August from Philadelphia to California, where he was to start his senior year at Pomona College. So he carried some Arabic-English flashcards in his pocket to study on the plane.
But those flashcards changed George's life far beyond the classroom. The 22-year-old from Pennsylvania is speaking out against what he contends are abuses by federal authorities in airport security measures.
George, a physics major who is considering a career as a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, is suing the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI and Philadelphia police for jailing him after his flashcards were found and confiscated in a Philadelphia airport screening. His lawsuit, filed in federal court this week, said his four hours in detention, half of that in handcuffs, violated his rights to free speech and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
"I feel the TSA acts like it has a blank check as long as what it does is in the name of fighting terrorism," George, said Thursday from Claremont, where he lives in a dormitory. "Of course, the TSA's job is to keep us safe -- but they have to follow the Constitution and respect rights."
If his flashcards triggered such deep suspicion, George said, "then we've got a real 1st Amendment issue here. I have a right to study Arabic."
The student acknowledged that a few of the vocabulary words, including "bomb" and "terrorism," may have alarmed authorities, but he also said he needed to learn them in order to understand the news of the day in Arabic-language newspapers.
George said his interest in Arab culture began when he saw "Lawrence of Arabia" as a child. "The more I studied it, the more I was fascinated it by it," he said. He plans to take the State Department exam to become a foreign service officer.
Last year, George spent a semester in Jordan, where he studied Arabic, and then traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. He said his passport, with stamps from those countries, and a book in his possession that was critical of U.S. foreign policy, may also have raised suspicions at the airport.
Professors describe George as an excellent student in science and Arabic.
"He's sharp and he's really interested in the language, interested in the culture. He loves to pick up expressions and idioms," said Bassam Frangieh, a professor of Arabic at Claremont McKenna College, where George takes classes through the Claremont Colleges consortium.
(there's a page 2 at the source)
The thing is, if this student was a so-called Arabic-speaking terrorist, he would already speak Arabic and have no need for flash cards. Unless, they're really short on staff and sent some white guy on a plane with terrorist-related flash cards and told him to "wing it".