America’s Greatest Threat: Flashcards

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, Pomona College senior Nicholas George, backed by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that TSA and FBI agents stomped all over his First and Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him for five hours after they discovered a set of Arabic flashcards and political science books in his backpack. The complaint is worth reading in full (here‘s the pdf version), but this section in particular is worth highlighting:

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.

Then, according to the complaint, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flashcards and asked, “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?”

Uh, no. Another choice nugget: “During their questioning, for example, the FBI agents repeatedly asked Mr. George why he had chosen to study physics at a liberal arts college such as Pomona.” (I wonder if his answer was anything like this?).

I took a year of Arabic in college and was always secretly hoping something like this would happen to me. But I also resigned myself to the fact that this would never happen, because, almost by definition, anyone who needs a set of elementary flashcards to speak Arabic probably hasn’t made much progress in his path to Islamic extremism.


I’m also not sure why, what with the Internet and all, it would take five hours of interrogation to confirm the simple details that this college student is, in fact, a college student and does, in fact, study Arabic. And I think that—along with the perpetual cloud of suspicion surrounding eight-year-old cub scout Mikey Hicks of Clifton, NJ— gets at the broader point here. Goofballs like Mitch McConnell might grouse about just how lax our interrogations are. But the problem isn’t that the FBI isn’t very good at interrogating people (the evidence suggests otherwise); it’s that they have an alarming tendency to waste their time interrogating the wrong people. A little common sense goes a long way.