Nick George PO ’10 arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport an hour and a half before his flight back to Pomona College this fall. Ninety minutes later, as his plane thundered down the runway, he was sitting in a police holding room in handcuffs.
Transportation Security Administration officials pulled George aside for a secondary screening as he walked through the security checkpoint at the Philadelphia airport on Aug. 29. TSA officials were initially suspicious because they observed “involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered,” according to Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for TSA.
George, however, disputes their account.
“Rarely is there a two-month period that I’m not on an airplane,” he said. “So the idea that just waiting in line in the airport, I was acting really nervous or uptight just doesn’t seem credible to me.”
Instead, George believes he might have been pre-picked for screening based on his prior visits to countries like Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Jordan.
George said he was held in the screening area for upwards of 30 minutes. He thinks he was the subject of further suspicions because TSA screeners saw his school ID card from Amman University of Jordan, where he has studied, as well as handwritten flash cards in Arabic. He relates a dialogue he had with a TSA screener:
“She looked at the book I was reading and said, ‘You obviously read… how do you feel about 9/11?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m against it…’ And she said, ‘Yeah, well do you know who did 9/11?’… and I said, ‘Osama Bin Laden.’ And she said, ‘Do you know what language Osama Bin Laden spoke?’ and I think I just said, ‘Arabic.’”
At this point, George said he was arrested by an airport police officer and left in a holding cell with handcuffs on for 90 minutes to two hours.
“It certainly seemed strange to me that for this additional screening, I had to be put in handcuffs,” George said.
Eventually, George’s handcuffs were removed and officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation came in to ask questions. They asked him what he had been doing in various countries where he had received passport stamps, what his purpose of flying was, and whether or not he was in any Islamic or communist groups on campus. Within 20 minutes, he was released to the Southwest Airlines ticketing desk where he was issued a new plane ticket for the first flight out of the airport on Sunday.
The Philadelphia Police Department and the FBI in Philadelphia did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
George said that it was reasonable for the TSA officers to give him a secondary screening. He had passport stamps from countries considered to be hostile or unstable, as well as Arabic flash cards with terms such as “terrorist” and “explosion.”
But he said they should have waved him on after realizing he was an unarmed college student with a legitimate explanation for all his possessions.
“Instead they got a police officer to arrest me, and that’s what I think just doesn’t make any sense and is totally unacceptable.”
Professor Bassam Frangieh, George’s Arabic professor at Claremont McKenna College, said he was appalled to hear what happened to his student. He assumes George was detained because authorities were “paranoid” about his association with terrorist organizations after they saw his Arabic flash cards and the countries he had visited with his passport.
“People, they study Arabic not to work for terrorist organizations,” he said, “they study Arabic to build bridges with the people, to understand their culture, to understand their language, in order to have a more harmonious world.”
Frangieh hopes current and potential future students of Arabic are not scared away when they hear George’s story.
“Please consider this to be an isolated incident,” he said. “I want [students] to go the Middle East, to study Arabic, [and] to come back with more flash cards.”