Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thank God I was reading the Chosun Ilbo, not Al-Quds

More troubling than the hours-long detention of a white American student for having Arabic-language flash cards on his person at an airport are the comments on CNN's website. Normally, the sort of people that comment on Internet news are not representative of public opinion for reasons of profanity, idiocy and incoherency, but in this case, it's different.

The posts tend towards ridicule slightly, but a significant number conclude that the student was mistaken to carry Arabic flash cards, including ones that said "bomb", "explosion" and "terrorist" (fun fact: terrorists don't call themselves terrorists) for reasons of prudence. The process, in effect, says that the government is unpredictable, capricious and strict, and that giving them suspicion will have unfortunate consequences. As a result, we should self-censor to avoid arrest and subsequent enhanced interrogation.

One person writes, "There is no logical reason to learn those words. When would they ever come up in conversation, unless you were planning something?" George had plainly said that he learned the words to help him understand news reports, but that's besides the point. The person who wrote that post used the words "Arabic", "bomb", as well as "planning something" in the post. What logical reason is there to use those words for anything but criminal intents?

The other problem, along with self-censorship, is the presumption of guilt. Someone holding a cell phone is typically not presumed to have stolen it unless proven otherwise, but passengers at an airport are generally presumed to be guilty unless they can prove otherwise. If I were to report George to the authorities for having Arabic flash cards, they would likely take no action, having not much evidence of guilt. At an airport, the situation reverses horrifically. George, starting from a presumption of guilt, could not clear his name because he was studying Arabic.

Now, if Americans are interested in constructing the sort of Second World country like China or Iran where travelers are advised to not bring in politically or religiously sensitive material, that's fine, but I imagine most Americans are not interested in that sort of decline.


andré said...

Adeel, as a Pakistani immigrant posting "nonymously" on the internet, I think it's incredibly irresponsible that you used the words "bomb", "terrorist" and "explosion" in a post. You're asking for it, man.

Erik said...

An American student studying Arabic words that relate to terrorism? I wonder if he was brushing up ahead of a job interview with the State Department, Department of Defense or the CIA.

Erik said...

Yeah, good job on my part commenting before reading the article. My suspicion was correct. He was planning to take the foreign service exam.