BY Scott McCartney, Wall Street Journal, the middle seat
Is studying Arabic in college something that should land you in jail?
The Transportation Security Administration has “behavior detection” officers roaming airports looking for suspicious behavior. Two weeks ago, officers at Philadelphia International Airport flagged Nick George, a student at Pomona College, as worthy of scrutiny before he got to a checkpoint for a flight back to school in California.
According to Dave Davies in the Philadelphia Daily News, TSA searched Mr. George’s backpack and found Arabic-language flashcards. His passport also had a stamp from Jordan — where he went overseas to study Arabic for a semester — and Egypt and the Sudan.
“I understand I might warrant a second look,” said the college senior from Wyncote, Pa. He thought with student IDs, including his student ID from Jordan, and a pretty standard explanation he’d be on his way. Heck, the U.S. needs all the Arabic speakers it can get, right?
(Full disclosure: I’ve done NPR radio broadcasts with Dave Davies, and one of my daughters attends Pomona College.)
After some questions from TSA, a Philadelphia police officer put handcuffs on the college student and took him to an airport police holding cell. The cuffs stayed on for two hours, then were removed. Two FBI agents arrived a couple of hours later, questioned him and decided he wasn’t a threat. He was given a ticket to fly the next day.
A Philadelphia police lieutenant told Mr. Davies that police were called because TSA got suspicious about the Arabic flash cards and because Mr. George had longer hair in his driver’s license and passport photos than his current clean-cut appearance. Mr. Davies thinks TSA should have apologized to Mr. George and acted with more humanity.
I’ve written before about aggressive TSA actions. This really is an issue that a new TSA administrator, when he gets confirmed by the Senate, needs to take a hard look at. (Erroll Southers, an assistant police chief at Los Angeles International Airport, was tapped by the Obama Administration last week.) One question is how far the “behavior police” can go? Another is simply how travelers are treated once in TSA custody.