As many as 420 million people around the world speak Arabic, making it the sixth most spoken language. But learning the language brought on an unexpected event for one college student traveling back to school for his senior year.

In 2009, as a Pomona College (CA) student and now Google programmer, Nicholas “Nick” George was detained at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) for five hours because the TSA and Philadelphia police thought he posed a danger after finding English-Arabic language flashcards (that included the words “to kill” and “bomb” in translation) on him while he was passing through security.

This week, his saga ended — a $25,000 settlement and further training for airport police.

tsa pat down procedure

“TSA agents and the police felt they had the authority to detain and then arrest me, purely on ignorant assumptions about a language…”    -Nick George

As George writes in his ACLU blog post (the American Civil Liberties Union represented George) (my emphasis):

At the metal detector at airport security, Transportation Security Administration agents asked me to empty my pockets. I took the set of flashcards from my pocket and handed them to the officers. After I cleared the metal detector, they asked me to step aside for additional screening. One of them started rifling through the cards, and another took the book out of my carry-on. The minutes ticked by, and I got more confused about why I was being detained and more concerned that I would miss my flight. One of them called a supervisor.

After a half-hour delay at the security line, the supervisor showed up, and things turned from annoying to surreal. After looking at the book and flashcards, the supervisor asked me: “Do you know who did 9/11?” Taken totally aback, I answered: “Osama Bin Laden.” Then she asked me if I knew what language Osama Bin Laden spoke. “Arabic,” I replied. “So do you see why these cards are suspicious?” she finished.

Imagine going from being in line at the airport to having a TSA supervisor imply you had some connection with the worst act of terrorism ever committed against your country – all over the course of a few minutes.

He was subsequently handcuffed and walked to the PHL police substation where he sat for hours, still handcuffed, until the FBI arrived and cleared him.

Neither the city nor the Justice Department admits wrongdoing in the settlement.
View the settlement PDF here.


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