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Learning Arabic
February 11, 2010 10:36 AM   Subscribe

An American student learning Arabic was detained for hours by the TSA and questioned because he carried basic Arabic flash cards. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nick George a physics student at Pomona College who was detained and aggressively interrogated by Transportation Security Administration authorities, by the FBI and by Pennsylvania police when he tried to board a plane carrying Arabic language flash cards.
posted by sierray (145 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
my hair is on fire. where do these pointy-headed morons think that linguists come from, if we don't (can't, obviously) recruit them from the native-speaker population?
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:41 AM on February 11, 2010


You wouldn't be laughing if he used his mutant power to charge those cards with glowing pink energy and blow holes in the fuselage now would you
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:42 AM on February 11, 2010 [35 favorites]


What is this, pre-pre-crime?
posted by zorrine at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2010


Sorry, but in case you can't tell, this is my "surprised" face.

I'll wheel it out again when we see the next report of TSA dudes hauling off trainee pilots who are carrying their copy of "Flying planes for dummies"

This kind of thing is now going to happen all the time - only soon it won't be news, and everyone will just accept it; after all, it is better to be safe than sorry, isn't it? Better to inconvenience one person than have hundreds die, and the airport security staff lose their jobs for not checking properly...

Hmph.
posted by Chunder at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


You wouldn't be laughing if he used his mutant power to charge those cards with glowing pink energy and blow holes in the fuselage now would you

god you're right. why didn't I think of that? I'm such a bad citizen. better safe than sorry.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:45 AM on February 11, 2010


Ah, the smoking gun! Flash cards!

This is kind of to be expected, really. You kind of have to be an obtuse lunkhead to want to go into law enforcement in the first place.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:46 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


In related news:

BAA has disputed a claim by Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan that his naked image was printed and circulated by body scanner operators at Heathrow Airport.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:47 AM on February 11, 2010


*Sideshow Bob Groan*
posted by The Whelk at 10:51 AM on February 11, 2010


Dear God.

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.
At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards—which had words such as "to smile" and "funny" and on them—and said: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

posted by cimbrog at 10:51 AM on February 11, 2010 [7 favorites]


Does bin Laden speak Arabic or Pashto?
posted by phunniemee at 10:53 AM on February 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ladies and Gentleman, before proceeding to the gate you must:

1) discard any liquids, gels, jellos, puddings, congealed fat, snot, bacon drippings, poopie diapers over 3oz

2) take off your shoes

3) shave your head and all body hair exceeding any length which the TSA might reasonably deem could disguise or conceal an AK47, a machete, a hand grenade, a bobby pin, chewing gum wrappers and paper clips, angry/disengranchised and thus radicalized lice, fleas, mosquitoes or grubs. This includes hair in, around, above, behind, next to, or touching the ass crack/anal cavity

4) those stupid coke bottles with Coke written in arabic

5) in fact, anything that has any arabic on it whatsoever

6) in fact, please discard anything on which Arabic could be written, or anything which the TSA deems could be used to write Arabic on

7) in fact, the word Arabic is right out. Do not say arabic. Don't even look at the word Arabic

That is all, enjoy your flight.
posted by spicynuts at 10:53 AM on February 11, 2010


Because the only thing keeping Osama from killing us all right now is the need to brush up on his arabic?
posted by nomisxid at 10:54 AM on February 11, 2010 [11 favorites]


You kind of have to be an obtuse lunkhead to want to go into law enforcement in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is true. I suspect when you get down to the payscale of the TSA airport workers, you're not even getting the cream of the lunkhead crop.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:55 AM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


They know that Americans use Arabic numerals, right?
posted by hermitosis at 10:56 AM on February 11, 2010 [27 favorites]


Does bin Laden speak Arabic or Pashto?

bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia. He may have learned Pashto while living in Afghanistan, but he speaks Arabic in his various videos and tape recordings.
posted by jedicus at 10:57 AM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


Come on, you people, he could have been a sleeper agent! If he had asked the airline steward for a pillow, it would have been ALL OVER!
posted by ardgedee at 10:57 AM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not enough gets written about the stupid ass-covering protocols that means when Paul Blart doesn't have the nous to work out that not all Arabs, or Arabic speakers, secretly want to deprive him of his right to a six pack of All-American beer, every other security agent up to the Director of the FBI has to take him seriously. Just in case.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:57 AM on February 11, 2010


Well see, ninjas have flash grenades, so... no, I've got nothing.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:57 AM on February 11, 2010


hermitosis: "They know that Americans use Arabic numerals, right?"

Shut uuuup! Don't bollux things up worse!
posted by boo_radley at 10:58 AM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I haven't flown in well over a year... I swear I will never get on another airplane...
posted by HuronBob at 10:58 AM on February 11, 2010


The following exchange took place between George and a TSA supervisor who questioned him:

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

At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards—which had words such as "to smile" and "funny" and on them—and said: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"


Most of these jokers aren't qualified to sell stamps and yet they're given a gun, a plastic badge, and what increasingly appears to be unlimited power to harass anyone they choose. Isn't this the government boogeyman the right is always whining about?

As I said yesterday, I cannot understand why the party that fears government rallies behind a government that does this.

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
Three Blind Mice: Public Enemy. And I think they were talking about YOU.
posted by three blind mice at 11:00 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


but guys, he had a whole deck of them - he could have cut someone's throat with them, depending on the sharpness of the edges, how many there were and how long the flight was
posted by pyramid termite at 11:03 AM on February 11, 2010


Astronomers... you're next on the watch list!
posted by steef at 11:04 AM on February 11, 2010


three blind mice: you left this out:

Of the approximately 200 flash cards, about 10 had words such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist," George said.

"They asked me why I had those words. I told them honestly because I had been trying to read Arabic news media, especially Al-Jazeera, and these are words that come up when you read the news about the Middle East," George said.


Sounds good to me. I wish Mefi would dig into a story more instead of just lining up to express outrage.

And no, before anyone piles on, I'm not defending this. I'm just trying to get a fuller picture of what occurred.
posted by vacapinta at 11:05 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


The TSA detained me.

The TSA Detained me over flash cards.

FLASH.

CARDS.

They asked me.

ASKED ME.

Who did 9/11.

I said Bin Laden.

BIN LADEN.
--

Where's "Blogger bob" to show us the video and explain how this was all just a misunderstanding, etc?
TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.
At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards—which had words such as "to smile" and "funny" and on them—and said: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"
Wow. I had actually heard they asked him "who did 9/11" and I thought they might have been trying to see if he was a truther, or something. But just asking so he could make the point that Bin Laden spoke Arabic? Tim McVeigh spoke English, does that make every English speaker a terrorist too? Or just ESL students?
posted by delmoi at 11:05 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm just trying to get a fuller picture of what occurred.

... How on earth does the ability to say these words in Arabic translate into intention to commit terrorist acts? Does Al Q recruitment dock you that many points on language skills?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:08 AM on February 11, 2010 [12 favorites]


I'm sorry, but I completely agree with this move on their part.

I mean, what do you EXPECT the authorities in the United States of Fighting Terrorism to do, defend civil liberties and promote general welfare?
posted by jefficator at 11:09 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


but guys, he had a whole deck of them - he could have cut someone's throat with them, depending on the sharpness of the edges, how many there were and how long the flight was

Yeah, just imagine what an Arabic Ricky Jay could do with those cards!
posted by jedicus at 11:10 AM on February 11, 2010


Alright, listen up, passengers on TS491 to Pasadena. I'm gonna ask you one question: what kind of transportation did those responsible for 9/11 use? Huh?
That's right! Up against the wall!
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:12 AM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


Sounds good to me. I wish Mefi would dig into a story more instead of just lining up to express outrage.
posted by vacapinta at 11:05 AM on February 11


With all due respect, vp, they're disassociated words on flash cards. Every day thousands of travelers carry Tom Clancy novels that include the words "gun," "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist" onto planes. Shall we detain and question all of them as well?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:13 AM on February 11, 2010 [13 favorites]


Jeez. I should stopping studying Irish lest I be mistaken for an IRA member.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:13 AM on February 11, 2010


That is all, enjoy your flight.
posted by spicynuts

That's funny coming from you, since I can't seem to get any spicy nuts on my flights anymore.
posted by NationalKato at 11:13 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


With all due respect, vp, ... Shall we detain and question all of them as well?

I said I'm NOT defending this. I knew I should have bolded that. I know people are looking for someone to crucify. Its not me. I come in peace!

I'm trying to get more details. So I used the GOOGLE and got more accounts of the story. I'm gathering INFORMATION and presenting it. That is all.
posted by vacapinta at 11:16 AM on February 11, 2010


Did anyone make a Gambit joke yet
posted by Damn That Television at 11:19 AM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


vacapinta:Of the approximately 200 flash cards, about 10 had words such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist," George said.

Would you agree that there is a difference between the word "bomb" and an actual "bomb?"

Al Kay Duh doesn't have to do anything else. The top floors of the country are on fire and eventually the whole thing will collapse on itself.
posted by three blind mice at 11:20 AM on February 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


And no, before anyone piles on, I'm not defending this. I'm just trying to get a fuller picture of what occurred.

OK, vacapinta - now that you have a "fuller picture", are you more convinced, less convinced, or unchanged in your convictions that this TSA interview was an ass-headed farce of an investigation?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:21 AM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


God fucking damn it OC, second post gambit joke, that's what I get for going to lunch instead of posting -_-
posted by Damn That Television at 11:21 AM on February 11, 2010


TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?

What if he were a truther and said George W. Bush? I wonder what would have happened next.
posted by yeti at 11:24 AM on February 11, 2010


"They asked me why I had those words. I told them honestly because I had been trying to read Arabic news media, especially Al-Jazeera, and these are words that come up when you read the news about the Middle East," George said.

Sounds good to me.

... I said I'm NOT defending this.


Oh. I (and maybe others) perhaps misunderstood your statement "Sounds good to me."

Care to clarify? If there's a chain of logic here that you and the TSA officer picked up on that I'm missing, please to inform.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:24 AM on February 11, 2010


That's not a challenge. I just honestly don't see where you're coming from. I agree, more information is better.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:27 AM on February 11, 2010


Not really. The whole thing doesn't make sense to me. "Sounds good" meant that what he said sounds plausible.

People in the thread were making fun of the TSA folks being suspicious of words like "smile" but that was a misrepresentation. They were afraid of words like "bomb." Of course that doesn't make them less incompetent. But they're really incompetent enough without having to manufacture information to hang them with. Really.
posted by vacapinta at 11:32 AM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yes, let's interrogate vacapinta, that will help us get our outrage on.
posted by kathrineg at 11:33 AM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.
At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards—which had words such as "to smile" and "funny" and on them—and said: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"
posted by cimbrog


To be fair, how many Arabic speakers could there really be? 3? 4? And we haven't CAUGHT Bin Laden yet... George, you had better hope you look nothing like a communist from Spain, or shit is ON!
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:36 AM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Their only defense really seems to be that he was acting suspiciously too. But that sounds like the kind of thing you can just say after the fact. It is purely subjective. Anyone can be suspicious.

Heck, I should know, I've been pulled over enough times just because I was suspiciously dark.
posted by vacapinta at 11:37 AM on February 11, 2010


I'm pretty sure it was sarcasm. At any rate that's how I interpreted it.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:38 AM on February 11, 2010


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


Okay, first of all: Who says "Who did 9/11?" Is that a common turn of phrase now? It sounds pretty stupid.

Secondly: What language Osama bin Laden spoke? Past tense? Do they know something we don't?

I would fail these questions so hard. "No, I don't know who was ultimately responsible for the 9/11 attacks. How would I come by that information? I know who everyone says it is and don't have any particular reason to disbelieve them, but - Hey! Where are you taking me!?"
posted by ODiV at 11:39 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm imagining the TSA agent thinking "OH SO IT'S FUNNY TO BE A TERRORIST AND CAUSE AN EXPLOSION WITH A BOMB!?! IT MAKES YOU SMILE??? J'ACCUSE!!!!!!!"
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, yes, outrageous, yes, stupid TSA people and their ignorant ways and lack of context and all that...

My question is... what happens to someone like George after they are released? If he was really detained for hours and had some 7 people called in to talk to him and even had the FBI notified of his situation... surely he missed his plane. Is he then just SOL, or does the TSA make arrangements to make sure that George gets to his intended destination as rapidly as possible?

I'm genuinely curious.
posted by hippybear at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2010


vacapinta: ah, gotcha. I wasn't making anything of the content of the flash cards (being "smile" and the like). This was incidental to me, as I believe it was to the officer, the salient characteristic being the language. If this guy walks into a bank and has all of the cards for "GIVE / ME / ALL / YOUR / MONEY" somewhere in the pack, I still think he's still pretty much in the clear.

Unless, mind you, he's waving those five cards around with a gun in the other hand. But then, still, I think the gun might be the more important indicator.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:44 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


that will help us get our outrage on

This is a baffling sentiment. Not that we should be outraged at vacapinta, but that we shouldn't be outraged at an incident like this. Is cool, detached irony the only acceptable emotion among the cool kids these days?
posted by maxwelton at 11:45 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


The TSA's tactics/questioning remind me of old Communist Poland and Bugajski's movie The Interrogation [Przesluchanie].

Stunning.

Nail? Hammer.

Can they have more paranoid personality disordered people working there? Or is it the law itself that was bum rushed after 9/11 without so much as a debate. The stripping of one's rights with this law, has it even netted 1 terrorist? Has anyone even been accused, charged and found guilty?

Where is the proof that Nick George was ever a threat. Seems they didn't even bother to check his name in any database for any criminal record or some such. Lazy and disturbing. Three branches of 'security', TSA, FBI and local police.

Even if he had a flash card for the word bomb, wouldn't 'security' even think that here is someone who could possibly inform authorities should he ever hear the word spoken at an airport, for instance?

Doing a fine job, yutzes. Carry on with the witch hunt.
posted by alicesshoe at 11:47 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


TSA: Do you know who committed genocide on two continents?
Person: Uh, settlers of the New World?
TSA: And what languages did they speak?
Person: English, Spanish, French and German?

Can everyone line up for their pre-flight waterboarding in an orderly fashion? Thank you.

Enjoy your flight.

(I pity the person who might have anything in old Gaelic or early German or English, they might be accused of sacrificing children into peat bogs or something).
posted by yeloson at 11:48 AM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm imagining the TSA agent thinking "OH SO IT'S FUNNY TO BE A TERRORIST AND CAUSE AN EXPLOSION WITH A BOMB!?! IT MAKES YOU SMILE??? J'ACCUSE!!!!!!!"

Gentlemen, I've discovered our filthy commie mole.
posted by DU at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jeez. I should stopping studying Irish lest I be mistaken for an IRA member.

Aren't the IRA still officially considered to be good terrorists (i.e., a bunch of misty-eyed, Guinness-drinking romantics who don't hate our freedom in the least)?
posted by acb at 11:50 AM on February 11, 2010


I'm gathering INFORMATION and presenting it. That is all.

But... you're not quoting SCIENCE?

Burn him. With FIRE.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:52 AM on February 11, 2010


Did anyone make a Gambit joke yet

Second comment, dude.
posted by delmoi at 11:54 AM on February 11, 2010


Yes, let's interrogate vacapinta, that will help us get our outrage on.

Well, that is the plan. Step one as you can see was to ask him politely to clarify. But step two, oh step two, involved delicious beatings.
With plush carnival prizes, yessss.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:55 AM on February 11, 2010


You know, shit like this makes me rethink my stance on lawyers.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:02 PM on February 11, 2010


My question is... what happens to someone like George after they are released? If he was really detained for hours and had some 7 people called in to talk to him and even had the FBI notified of his situation... surely he missed his plane.
According to this article, he did miss his plane and was given a ticket for a flight leaving the next day. However, he was not given an apology.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:03 PM on February 11, 2010


surely he missed his plane. Is he then just SOL

Well, most airlines will get you on the next flight they can if you miss your plane for any reason, usually without charge (this happened to a friend of mine just a couple days ago, wasn't that bad).

Of course, if that flight is the next day, they won't give you a hotel room. They won't make sure someone is there to meet you like they might have been originally. But the flight itself shouldn't be an issue.

In a case like this though, where the was so blatantly wrong (unless there's something we're not being told, which I doubt) I think there should also be some financial compensation to help make up for those other factors.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:07 PM on February 11, 2010


Americans use Arabic numerals, right?

No, they use freedom numerals.
posted by Kirk Grim at 12:29 PM on February 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


A note on vacapinta's comments, it may be that the words "bomb" and "terrorist" were included on the cards, but the agent who initially pulled him aside probably didn't know that. All he knew was the guy had cards in the terrorists' language that he couldn't read. Who knows what secret correspondences could be included with those cards? The "bomb" and "terrorist" stuff came out during the interrogation, if I'm correct. (If not, disregard this.) Also not, I'm not pointing a finger at vacapinta, just using his extra information to point out where the problem with prejudice originated.

I makes me wonder if I would get pulled aside for having Sindarin flash cards in my pockets. Its kinda squiggly like Arabic and the TSA agents wouldn't be able to read it.
posted by cimbrog at 12:34 PM on February 11, 2010


# 'X-Files' star finds Vancouver gems
# John Mayer calls ex 'sexual napalm'--Video
# A blizzard of TV bloopers--Video

= things that made the front page of CNN.com, although this didn't. Fuck you, CNN. I'm done with you.
posted by theredpen at 12:36 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


better safe than sorry

huh...and I was taught "better sorry than safe".

I certainly try to live that way, and so far, I have to say I'm not sorry.
posted by TomStampy at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Data point: I have cleared airport security without a problem while wearing a t-shirt that says "I am not a terrorist" in Arabic.
posted by killdevil at 12:38 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


They know that Americans use Arabic numerals, right?

You can prove anything with numbers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:40 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh crap, I asked a little bilingual girl at story time to teach me the word for cat in Arabic. Sorry, kids, story time is postponed while Miss Amy talks to the nice officers!
posted by Biblio at 12:42 PM on February 11, 2010


So they saw somebody acting suspiciously, pulled him aside, discovered some items that they felt warranted some more questions of him. They asked those questions, eventually determined he wasn't a threat, and let him go. It took longer than it should have because they had to wait for higher-ups to confirm what they should do.

Sounds like the system worked to me.

We get all upset when TSA agents pull aside grannies for a pat-down, because grandma's clearly not a threat. It looks like in this case they did a little profiling, which in the last thread we had on airport security was lauded as the best way to do security, as that's how the Israelis do it. They probably could have been a little smarter about it, but at least they're moving in the right direction.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:43 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. That's a pretty understated way to describe things, Kraftmatic.

They saw somebody acting suspiciously (was he palming a hand-off? climbing a perimeter fence?!) and, pulling him aside, discovered some items that they felt warranted some more questions of him (one of those belt-buckle daggers, no? detonators, maybe?).

They detained a guy for hours for learning Arabic. That's a simpler way to go, if you want to keep things simple. So as far as the system working goes, I take it you see a rational connection between "what language Osama spoke" and security detention and interrogation that I do not.

Again, if so, please to explain, because I obviously don't get it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:02 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


A note on vacapinta's comments, it may be that the words "bomb" and "terrorist" were included on the cards, but the agent who initially pulled him aside probably didn't know that.

Except for the fact that the words were in Arabic on one side, English on the other. These agents may be morons, but they can probably read written English well enough to decode words like "bomb."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2010


Except for the fact that the words were in Arabic on one side, English on the other.

Ah, brain fart, as expected as of late. As mentioned in that comment, if I am wrong then please disregard (cocks, etc.)
posted by cimbrog at 1:08 PM on February 11, 2010


So they saw somebody acting suspiciously, pulled him aside, discovered some items that they felt warranted some more questions of him.

No, they discovered some items that no reasonable person could possibly believe warranted more questions of him.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:10 PM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


They know that Americans use Arabic numerals, right?

However Arabs do not use what we call Arabic numerals. Maybe they do in terms of what that word actually means, but they don't in terms of how they actually look.
posted by cell divide at 1:12 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


However Arabs do not use what we call Arabic numerals. Maybe they do in terms of what that word actually means, but they don't in terms of how they actually look.

Some of the digits look different (and some look the same) but they have the same meanings. But actually calling them "arabic numerals" is a misnomer because they were actually invented in India.

See the Wikipedia article
posted by delmoi at 1:18 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Again, it's called profiling and it's the proven best method of security.

They say he was acting suspiciously. We don't know what that means. It could mean his eyes were shifty; that's all it takes to get the Israeli security agents interested.

So they pull him aside, as they should. Turns out he's traveling alone. Acting suspicious and traveling alone? The process should advance. They discover the Arabic flash cards. Not suspicious on their own, or in another context, but on a lone young male traveler who was acting suspicious before boarding an airplane, perhaps even on a one-way ticket, they merit some more questions and a phone call to higher-ups.

To do this they have to detain him. And they have to wait for the superior officers to arrive. Time passes. Security protocol probably requires that he be handcuffed. Eventually the superior agents arrive, and they discover the words "bomb", "terrorist", etc. More flags have been raised, so harder questions are asked.

Eventually they get their answers, and the answers are confirmed, and he is found a threat, and he's let go and on his way.

This is how profiling is done. I don't like it, young guys with naturally shifty eyes who travel alone probably don't like it, Muslims traveling out of Ben Gurion especially don't like it, but it's the best way of doing it. It's better than patting down every ninth person through the gate, be they a soccer mom with a stroller or a U.S. Congressman or 108 years old and in diapers.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 1:32 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


vacapinta : I've been pulled over enough times just because I was suspiciously dark.

It's called flying while brown .
posted by dhruva at 1:38 PM on February 11, 2010


What shocked me most about this was not the TSA because it's now common knowledge that many of the people that work for them are morons but that he got questioned for 30 minutes by the FBI and one of the agents called him a fucking idiot.

The bit with the FBI agents is in this report of the story.

Could the FBI not see straight away that they had been called out on the idiotic suspicions of a TSA agent and the police?
posted by electricinca at 1:44 PM on February 11, 2010


They say he was acting suspiciously. We don't know what that means. It could mean his eyes were shifty; that's all it takes to get the Israeli security agents interested.

Who cares what Israeli security agents would think? The idea that you could be detained for 5 hours because some random idiot with a GED thinks you're suspicious and you have, gasp Arabic flashcards is insane.

And right two important points: 1) we don't actually know if what he was doing really qualified as 'suspicious' or not. And 2) there's no real evidence that learning Arabic actually indicates that you're more likely to be a terrorist.

And besides, if you want to argue that he should have gotten a more thorough search, that's fine. But once they determined that he didn't have any weapons on him, what exactly was the point in holding him? The point of airport security is to prevent bombings and hijackings. Not to stop "suspicious" people from flying, not to form an anti-terrorist dragnet to determine who might have terrorist sympathies or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 PM on February 11, 2010 [5 favorites]


You do realize that correlates to actual threats are precious to come by, don't you, Kraftmatic? That anti-profiling is a real problem in this field? That ill-defined profiles (which they almost all are) are a breeding ground for various prejudices?

You can assign points to any factor you like. You should, at some point in time, be able to justify the connection rationally. Because you just don't have the data set to say "ring-wearing, left-handed, tweed-wearing, black-shoed men between 32 and 34." And the closer you get to conjecture, the more rational your connection better be, or look like (and potentially be) mere prejudice in disguise.

I spent some time working in this field, and none of us ever gave it the free pass you are giving it right now. If you want Arabic flash cards to be worth any points in your profile, you have to at some point be able to explain why in the world -- how, just conjecture -- it might point to danger. If you can't do that, you're nowhere. And I mean at the design stage. You're just inviting your officers to profile according to ethnicity and make up the rest as they write their report. As is, your example for "acting suspiciously" ("shifty eyes") is under considerable scrutiny because -- surprise, surprise -- it doesn't mean what white westerners thought it meant. In some cultures, it's disrespectful to look someone in the eye.

Yes, I know El Al gets trotted out as the poster boy for airline security, but do tell, how's their false positive rate? Cause it might just be a little less tolerable in a west not literally under seige anywhere but in the imagination of the media.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2010 [15 favorites]


Yeah, just imagine what an Arabic Ricky Jay could do with those cards!

Off topic, but was he the guy who published a book on throwing playing cards as weapons that inexplicably used a topless female model to demonstrate technique?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2010


But once they determined that he didn't have any weapons on him, what exactly was the point in holding him?

I think the FBI wanted to talk to him, that's why they were holding him so long (could be wrong about this, I remember reading it elsewhere). I agree it's a ridiculously long time to be detained when he proved not to be a threat.

That ill-defined profiles (which they almost all are) are a breeding ground for various prejudices?

I'm sure this is a problem. But it's better than not profiling.

If you want Arabic flash cards to be worth any points in your profile

They probably thought the cards meant he had lived in the Middle East and they wanted to know if he was a radical Islamist. Since they are looking for radical Islamists, this merited some more questions.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:00 PM on February 11, 2010


Who cares what Israeli security agents would think?

Because they are the ones who are making these kinds of security decisions at some U.S. airports.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:08 PM on February 11, 2010


To answer my own question, "However, the reason this book is in such demand is that the photographs reveal you (or of course your lovely assistant) need not wear clothes to scale cards."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:15 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sure this is a problem. But it's better than not profiling.

List the would-be airplane terrorists we nabbed through profiling since 9/11. I'll wait.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:26 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


That ill-defined profiles (which they almost all are) are a breeding ground for various prejudices?

I'm sure this is a problem. But it's better than not profiling.


NO. IT. IS. NOT.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 2:28 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


List the would-be airplane terrorists we nabbed through profiling since 9/11. I'll wait.

Explain why random searches are better than profiling. I'll wait.

NO. IT. IS. NOT.

Just because you say so in capital letters?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:31 PM on February 11, 2010


Isn’t this an old story? I don’t mean hackneyed or worn out, I mean it happened about a year or so ago.

“Sounds like the system worked to me.”
Well, handmade cards with English on one side and Arabic on the other. Text: “Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.” Passport stamps from Jordan, Sudan and Egypt

Yeah, I can see questioning him. Detaining him for five hours? No.

"Do you know who did 9/11? - Female interrogators are usually better than males. This one sounds like she was an idiot. But then, it’s the TSA. They’re not much better than some homeowners association security outfit.

From what they say though their behavior detection folks pulled him out of line and the flash cards had nothing to do with it. So his biorhythms were all out of kilter, or he was nervous or something.

Perhaps he had a fear of being hassled and was anticipating? Those things tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Tell a cop you have a phobia about cops (and some people legitimately do) they’re still not going to just leave you alone. Catch-22.

Lots of funky things one can do to read the autonomic nervous system, but it’s tough to read without influencing and setting up a feedback response.
Not that the TSA has any Amazing Kreskin’s working for them (he’s very good with body language).

But that aside, cutting his hair, removing the beard, all that, can indicate some life stress. Some people shave their heads.
On the other hand people do get drunk or break up with someone or just want to change their look. But it’s a reason to give him a once over.

The FBI questions seem straightforward – why were you in Jordan, what groups have you joined on campus, all that.
I’m kind of curious why he was learning to translate Al Jazeera. There are already translations out there. I suspect given his focus and given his mindset he wanted to learn it for the sake of learning it on top of whatever other benefits. Taking wanting to learn Arabic as a given of course.

All this really shows though – beyond the lack of professionalism from the TSA (and other issues aside, it costs nothing to be polite, and usually helps a great deal) is the uselessness of the apparatus that's in place.
Would you call a service who then calls 911 for you? Or would you rather just call the cops direct?

This rubber gun squad stuff is silly. Federalize the TSA – or better – cut an entirely new transportation security force from new cloth, mix them in with air marshals so you have guys who can get on the planes to follow someone and investigate if they think someone’s not an immediate threat but suspicious, etc. and have professionals with the power to arrest and have professional interrogators.

Then you don’t have to detain some shnook like this for five hours waiting on an actual law enforcement agency to come help you and waiting on everyone to figure out jurisdictional issues. All the while if the guy is an actual terrorist, his confederates don’t move to plan ‘b.’
Ah, but that would cost money. Tax dollars even. Those air marshals have to be trained too. More money.

That’s the hell of it. Even if this guy is a prick with a chip on his shoulder and in this particular case he’s 100% wrong and the TSA is 100% right, it doesn’t matter because how the TSA operates, the spectacle they blow money on, is still wrong.

On top of it you lose legitimacy which is deadly to any agency looking to maintain order.
Because if it goes on, and they keep screwing the pooch - even if they're really not blowing it, even if they're the best defensive security since Horatius Cocles, if they are perceived as blowing it then at some point, some TSA agent is going to push the wrong guy too far. Mess with the wrong guy's kid in line, he's got a big family or something, lots of friends, or he's famous, or not even that just a lot of people see a visible injustice, whatever, and there's going to be a riot at an airport.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:38 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


They discover the Arabic flash cards. Not suspicious on their own, or in another context, but on a lone young male traveler who was acting suspicious before boarding an airplane, perhaps even on a one-way ticket, they merit some more questions and a phone call to higher-ups.

Nope. There is no possible context in which a reasonable person would update their beliefs about whether a subject in airport security was a threat on the basis of him having Arabic flash cards.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:40 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


People tend to object to profiling, especially profiling where issues of ethnicity and skin color might be involved, because American law enforcement has such a deep history of racial bias, knee-jerk reactions, and rights violations on suspicion of guilt that it should be treated as automatically suspect.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is funny because if the dude had a copy of Guns & Ammo and was actively masturbating to it the TSA guys would have been all like "Freedom!"
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:01 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


I would pay $$ to see that
posted by kathrineg at 3:06 PM on February 11, 2010


"Explain why random searches are better than profiling. I'll wait. "

A truly random search cannot be used as a means of punishment, or harassment.

"it's called profiling and it's the proven best method of security."

Proven? By whom?
posted by Manjusri at 3:10 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Again, it's called profiling and it's the proven best method of security.

Ah, the myth of the Israeli superman lives on.

"Profiling is the best."
Why?
"It's what the Israelis do."
And?
"Well, they're the best."
Why?
"They use profiling."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:19 PM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


"TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?"

Good think he didn't ask him who did WTC.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 3:28 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


A truly random search cannot be used as a means of punishment, or harassment.

Doesn't make it more effective.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 3:38 PM on February 11, 2010


Explain why random searches are better than profiling. I'll wait.

Well bit of loaded terminology I didn't choose, there. If by "better" you mean "catches more terrorists" then perhaps. I'm not being stingy. Perhaps. You'd also catch more terrorists by putting everyone through secondary examination, invasive searches, etc.. At some point it becomes counter-productive. So the first thing you need to concern yourself is false positives. It's the same reason they don't just ban all laptops, duty-free items, etc, etc.. There's the business aspect, the convenience aspect (which, if it disappears entirely, means the industry truly collapses), and also the cost of all those searches. All this being $.

But the cost of profiling doesn't stop there. In fact, it's probably the least significant cost. What profiling also costs you is:
i) if interpreted to be, or include, racial profiling, corrosion of relations between the community and law enforcement;
ii) if interpreted to be, or include, racial profiling, contributing to discrimination by others against that group;
iii) hurt feelings.

Yeah, I underplay that last one, because if you don't already get it there's nothing I can tell you that will convince you it's a significant factor. Racial profiling is oppressive. There's no other word for it. And it also gets you i), and ii), above, which are significant.

i) Breakdown of trust between your profiled community and law enforcement means disappearance of the leads that, absent a lucky break, are the only reason why would-be-terrorists are caught, pretty much ever, before the act. If the community doesn't trust you you won't know shit.

ii) is pretty much the prime reason why grandma gets pulled over to secondary. Sure, ok, there's a slight anti-profiling component there, but I'd be willing to go as far with you as saying that it's easier to recruit non-standard drug mules than it is to find yourself off-profile suicide bombers for your cause. Not impossible, mind. And of course the more you concentrate on your profile, the less likely you are to catch off-profile perpetrators -- not just because of where you're putting your resources but what you're doing, psychologically focusing your officers. Obviously, a random search prevents exactly the kind of counter-profiling practices we suspect are occurring. You can't counter-profile a random search. There's no way to know it won't be you. You can only play the numbers. (which, profile or no, remains the case)

And that's all apart from creating the potential for abuse, which certainly should concern you if it doesn't.

In the end, it's the call of any agency to take a long hard look at the real benefits afforded by the numbers (what your profile can realistically achieve above and beyond random searches) and see if it's worth the cost. If you think "of course", you're not doing the calculation. I saw different answers from pretty much everyone we talked to.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:46 PM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


“It's better than patting down every ninth person through the gate, be they a soccer mom with a stroller or a U.S. Congressman or 108 years old and in diapers.”

Actually that’s demonstrably wrong. Nothing wrong with giving an extra look at someone who’s twitchy, but the only system that can’t be gamed and beaten is random. It’s easy to figure out – even if one doesn’t understand the math – how to limit one’s profile or that of one’s cadre.
Terrorists are dynamic. Statistics are static. Terrorists win.

“I'm sure this is a problem. But it's better than not profiling.”

Again, easy to disprove. Discrimination issues and Jew* hugging aside, it’s not possible to do in the U.S. what El Al does given the volume of air traffic. *Jihad Elimination Worker

Even then, El Al did not stop Anne Marie Murphy until midflight. She got knocked up by Nizar Hindawi (Jordanian). Six months pregnant, passed all the questioning, not nervous at all. Hindawi packed her bag for her (hence the apparently stupid question – anyone else pack these bags?), and put a bomb on it.

She wouldn’t have been ‘profiled,’ he would have. Simple. (That said, she was investigated)
Meanwhile you’re spending most of your time and energy on one small group (as you say, single males, traveling alone, one way ticket, etc).
So, at O’Hare and other typical large U.S. airports, you have ballpark over 100 million people going though each year.

So let’s say racial (and other non-behavioral) profiling is 99.99 percent accurate. You’re still impacting 10K+ people a year, at every large U.S. airport, with the potential for lawsuit and whatnot, on top of misdirection of resources.
More questions on costs (as far as the no fly list goes) here.
Profiling depends on data. Data is gathered for the most part by people.
Why not skip the middleman and rely on intelligence and security professionals to do the investigative work directly instead of employing fast food workers and relying on the mystique of the computer and technology to somehow do the work for you?
Why not defeat terrorism by proxy and eliminate the racial (and other static) identifiers by using random search as well?
This eliminates their attempt to game the system, since the pattern is random. You don’t have constant probing and zombie type attacks. If they are going to try something, they have to go through with it.
And that can become cost prohibitive for them, especially if it means your guys are sharp enough to fold their whole operation.
But let’s say terrorists are as staggeringly common as 1%. Detaining someone for a few hours then letting them go foils their plot – how?

Anne-Marie Murphy was stopped by a professional who examined her bag for explosives. She was questioned, but she wasn’t tried for anything. They nabbed Hindawi, busted the whole cell in the U.K., found links to Syrian intelligence and the embassy.
This kind of thing, I think makes us safer. Sidelining someone for a few hours and planting some goons on them because of a vague abstract threat (even where that is validated in spending a few minutes extra attention), not so much.

It's not just five hours of his time. It's five hours of the TSA workers time, time and travel from the FBI, time and travel from the local PD, not to mention, now, legal costs and potential settlements costs.

Worth it?
Me I like results if I'm going to expend time, effort and resources.
The implication is that hey, this guy wasn't a terrorist, but this is the technique we should use all the time to catch real terrorists.
The reality is that this guy wasn't a terrorist.

Again, there’s a difference between risk assessment and behavior profiling and investigation and ‘profiling’ as it means in common usage. The latter I disagree with. The former is a tool, it can be used to circumvent bribery and other human foibles. This guy is selected, than this guy is selected, nothing Joe Security can do about it.
But again, it's not demagoguery, there are efficient ways to work and less efficient ways. Profiling in the sense of ethnicity, skin color, religion, etc, is less efficient.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:51 PM on February 11, 2010 [8 favorites]


Explain why random searches are better than profiling. I'll wait.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:31 PM on February 1


Because as Smedleyman notes, it's the one system would-be bombers/hijackers can't beat. Profile Arab guys and they'll send in some John Walker Lindh motherfucker. Profile men and they'll start getting teenage girls to be suicide bombers. In addition, profiling based on what innocuous items people are carrying is fucking stupid. Jihad McShoebomb isnt carrying fucking cards that say "bomb" on them. This isn't a comic book. "Oh hey all terrorists carry Kraft Cheese N' Cracker snacks in their carry-on; you solved the Riddler's clues."

Now, list the number of would-be terrorists caught by your method. I did as you requested. It's only fair you do the same.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:58 PM on February 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


you're not even getting the cream of the lunkhead crop.

Worst idea for Campbell's soup, ever.


I'm confused as to why TSA gets to interrogate anybody. If the passenger is lacking in bombs and weaponry, then why are they not allowed to go about their business? If you get stopped at a checkpoint by the police and you have your documents, your license and registration is in order, and you are not intoxicated, do they get to haul you into the police station for questioning because they feel you are acting "suspicious"? "Looky here, he's got that nekkid Ricky Jay book in his backseat. Hey buddy, why do you need a copy of Cards as Weapons?"
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:08 PM on February 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


“Even then, El Al did not stop Anne Marie Murphy until midflight”
Gah. Poor editing there. I’ve got a bunch of things in my head and conflated. Sorry.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:24 PM on February 11, 2010


"Doesn't make it more effective."

That wasn't the question, but arguably it does since random selection would likely be more effective than selecting people based on the language they are studying, or whatever asinine methodology they are using at present.

Since you didn't back up your assertion about proof, I take it you are just trolling?
posted by Manjusri at 4:27 PM on February 11, 2010


They probably thought the cards meant he had lived in the Middle East and they wanted to know if he was a radical Islamist. Since they are looking for radical Islamists, this merited some more questions.

These are not the logical inferences you think they are. Furthermore, please do explain how Arabic flash cards could, even in crazytown, be indicative of a threat.

Are you imaging some terrorist who just didn't have the time to learn the language before his mission, where he's going to... what... radio his team in Arabic? What the hell? Does this really make any sense in your head? If it does, please explain.
posted by odinsdream at 4:28 PM on February 11, 2010


If you get stopped at a checkpoint by the police and you have your documents, your license and registration is in order, and you are not intoxicated, do they get to haul you into the police station for questioning because they feel you are acting "suspicious"?

It's not the same standard. I don't know as much about U.S. authorities, but in Canada, first of all, you have the right to back away and refuse the security measures -- so long as you don't mind not boarding the plane. It's not a right to board. But neither can you be held there without a cause (other than mere refusal) being already found. Crossing borders is an entirely different matter. You are subject to a different level of scrutiny (and under Canadian law, as the courts have it, secondary inspection isn't even considered a "detention", in terms of triggering rights owed to detained persons).
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:31 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll never forget the time I flew back to the US from London. I had packed a couple of acorns from an English oak tree. I knew it was wrong, but I did it because they were so pretty. At the airport, I went through the security line, and someone in uniform stopped me. "You seem a little nervous", he said. I shrugged and gave a little laugh, while thinking "He thinks I'm a DRUG MULE! What am I going to do? He's going to search my luggage and find my ACORNS!" And looked even more shifty. He looked at me again and let me go. And the first wastebasket I passed, I threw out the acorns.

The system works, I tell you.
posted by acrasis at 4:43 PM on February 11, 2010


I'm sure this is a problem. But it's better than not profiling.
Well, it's certainly better for people who don't have to worry about being profiled!
I'm confused as to why TSA gets to interrogate anybody. If the passenger is lacking in bombs and weaponry, then why are they not allowed to go about their business?
Exactly. The fact that this guy was 'suspicious' and the FBI thought it would be interesting to interview him is kind of irrelevant. The TSA's job should be to determine whether or not a passenger is a threat. Beyond that, people should be able to fly regardless of who they associate with, unless it's actual Al Quada members or something.

I mean, why not setup roadblocks on interstates and look for Arab looking people? What about stopping people randomly walking down the street? Or randomly check homes? I'm sure they'd find lots of suspicious people.
posted by delmoi at 5:45 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, please do explain how Arabic flash cards could, even in crazytown, be indicative of a threat.

I never said the cards indicated a threat, I said in that particular context they warranted further questions.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:02 PM on February 11, 2010


Guns, tumors, and the limits of the human eye
Greenberg is a radiologist who hunts for breast cancer. Hundreds of times each day, she visually searches digitized black-and-white X-rays filled with beautiful, spidery images of breast tissue.

Her job is to find within this maze of delicately crisscrossed lines and small misshapen blobs a cancer that, more often than not, blends almost perfectly into the background. In other words, her job is to see something that is almost invisible.

In this respect, Greenberg's work is very much like the work of another class of professionals whose failures have recently dominated news headlines: airport baggage screeners. Like Greenberg, they must hunt through hundreds if not thousands of confusing visual images in search of targets that are extremely rare and frequently hard to distinguish.

A study published in the journal Current Biology looks into the problems involved in visually searching for exceedingly rare targets and comes to an unsettling conclusion: "If you don't find it often, you often don't find it," says study author Jeremy Wolfe. In other words, we are not very good at finding things that are rarely there.


Seems like an article that might be apropos to this discussion.
posted by hippybear at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now, list the number of would-be terrorists caught by your method

When Muhammad Atta was checked by security before his final flight the security agent immediately thought Atta and his companion were terrorists. But because this kind of profiling is politically incorrect, the agent immediately felt guilty about his assumption and took no action.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:22 PM on February 11, 2010


I know Congress has got a lot on their plate right now, but something any senator or congressperson should be interested in is a bill reigning in the absolute power that TSA gloats over everyone. But of course, the govt. is perfectly happy with letting TSA lord over us peons. It'll take a revolution to change this shit around.
posted by zardoz at 6:39 PM on February 11, 2010


Again, it's called profiling and it's the proven best method of security.

No, it is not. Profiling assumes that challenges to your security will not realize that you might be profiling and even if they do, they won't be smart enough to change their modus operandi. You know, like putting a bomb in their underwear instead of their shoes.

"Further questioning" in this context means that a shit load of security personnel basically fapped about for no good reason for a couple hours. Pointing out the callouses on the TSA's collective schlong from all their pointless fappery is not proof that the system works.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:48 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every day thousands of travelers carry Tom Clancy novels that include the words "gun," "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist" onto planes. Shall we detain and question all of them as well?

Nah, just don't let them on the plane.
posted by Zed at 7:10 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


What if one of the words he was carrying a Power Word, huh? Then you'd all look silly.
posted by The Whelk at 7:12 PM on February 11, 2010


Apologies if I'm not the first to say this, but wasn't the FBI actively recruiting people who can speak Arabic not long ago? I'm confused; is it considered a threat, or an asset now?

But yes, if that line of questioning quoted in the first link is correct and not considered inappropriate by the TSA, then it sounds as though anyone who speaks, reads, or is learning Arabic is considered a potential terrorist as a matter of DOHS policy.

Also, perhaps I'm lacking in imagination today, but I'm not sure why having visited the Middle East and studying Arabic would make someone think you're a terrorist anyway. Presumably, if we're "profiling" at airport security, wouldn't having flashcards show you DON'T know the same language as Bin Laden? I mean, how often do you guys carry English flash cards?
posted by Kirk Grim at 7:14 PM on February 11, 2010


I never said the cards indicated a threat, I said in that particular context they warranted further questions.

I guess it wasn't obvious that I was directly challenging this logical leap of yours. I am asking you to explain how it warrants further questioning. Please be specific, because I do not see it at all.
posted by odinsdream at 7:56 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I never said the cards indicated a threat, I said in that particular context they warranted further questions.

This can only mean that you believe that terrorists on an active mission are more likely than the general population to have Arabic flash cards.

What proportion of the innocent population do you believe carries Arabic flash cards? What proportion of terrorists on an active mission do you believe carry Arabic flash cards?

Justify your proportions as best you can and explain how a difference on the scale you describe is inferentially useful in discriminating terrorists on active missions from the innocent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:57 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese wrote: "Explain why random searches are better than profiling. I'll wait."

Profiling alone is as stupid as you think not profiling at all would be. Presumably, a group of terrorists has at least one moderately intelligent person leading it.

If you know what the profile is, it's relatively easy to defeat. They find some light skinned fellow who doesn't have an accent who wants to blow up a plane or whatever and, oops, all your profiling just became useless.

At least with a truly random search, you can be sure your biases aren't getting in the way of doing the job. You have a chance of finding the light skinned fellow who has no accent or any other distinguishing features to make you think he's a terrorist.

And as others already mentioned, once they found out this fellow didn't have any contraband, he should have been allowed through. I don't care if brown people use my airplanes, although I sure do care if they blow them up. If they don't have a bomb, they sure as shit won't be blowing anything up, so further detention is pointless at best.
posted by wierdo at 10:21 PM on February 11, 2010


I am asking you to explain how it warrants further questioning.

Well, I suppose the questioning could go something like this, although probably not quite in these words:

We see by these flash cards that you have some sort of relationship with Arabic culture, and an interest in words in that language such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorism." As you are not Arabic, this is statistically unusual.

You may know that certain individuals and organizations from Saudi Arabia and nearby areas are hostile to the United States and have committed terrorist acts against this country. In fact, we know of a some people with backgrounds similar to yours who have traveled to that region and become involved with dangerous individuals and organizations, and have declared their intentions to do harm against the United States.

We also noticed that you were acting in a manner that could be construed as suspicious.

Furthermore, like some terrorists who have attempted to destroy aircraft in recent years, you are a young male traveling alone.

So, with all this in mind, could you please explain your statistically unusual relationship with this culture, and your suspicious behavior, so that we might determine if you are involved with dangerous organizations or individuals and might pose a threat to the aircraft?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:01 PM on February 11, 2010


once they found out this fellow didn't have any contraband, he should have been allowed through

He was.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:04 PM on February 11, 2010


I don't care if brown people use my airplanes

He is a white person. Have you been doing some unconscious profiling?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:05 PM on February 11, 2010


Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese wrote: "He was."

It does not take five hours to search someone's person and luggage, so no, he wasn't.

He was let go after checking him for contraband and a whole bunch of other stuff that wasn't needed.
posted by wierdo at 11:19 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Something is very fishy about all this. Almost all of the 'facts' are from David's quotes. The focus on the Arabic cards is over dramatic. It just don't seem to fit that the cards were the main reason for the whole incident.

Bits and pieces from quoted statements by others:

- David displayed erratic behavior (that escalated when approached).
- He had traveled to Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and had visited Malaysia and Indonesia.
- He carried an extra ID that showed him completely different than his "squeaky clean" look

I suspect that either 1.) the TSA's were getting tested by some kind of disgruntled activist group or 2.) David is seeking his own reality show.

bubble boy II?
posted by Surfurrus at 2:28 AM on February 12, 2010


We see by these flash cards that you have some sort of relationship with Arabic culture, and an interest in words in that language such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorism." As you are not Arabic, this is statistically unusual.

Okay. I see we're not going to get anywhere here because you genuinely believe this makes sense. I am supposing that like so many other paranoid americans you have somehow attached Terrorism to Arabic in your head, conveniently ignoring every single other case of this.

I can't really blame you, if you consume american media this is the most likely place you'll end up.
posted by odinsdream at 5:27 AM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe I am not understand what you are trying to say Surfurrus but are you seriously suggesting these 'Bits and pieces from quoted statements by others' mean there is some conspiracy going on here?

Withou going through this word by word I can't see any quotes to support the below inferences. Can you assist?

- David displayed erratic behavior (that escalated when approached).
What are you defining as erratic?

- He had traveled to Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and had visited Malaysia and Indonesia.

So what. Your point being? Anyone who declares an interest in affairs overseas is suspicious now?

- He carried an extra ID that showed him completely different than his "squeaky clean" look

Your right of course. Anyone with facial hair is a cause for concern.

Come on. The level of discourse here is worrying.
posted by numberstation at 5:56 AM on February 12, 2010


hey guys i heard it was make excuses for cops day
posted by dunkadunc at 6:03 AM on February 12, 2010


When Muhammad Atta was checked by security before his final flight the security agent immediately thought Atta and his companion were terrorists. But because this kind of profiling is politically incorrect, the agent immediately felt guilty about his assumption and took no action.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:22 PM on February 11


hmm yes this is not 100% bullshit thanks
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:03 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


See, this is what happens. If you can't make a reasonable tie of some sort of supposed indicator to danger, you just go and assign it a couple of points. Oh, you say, sure not everyone learning Arabic is a terrorist, but we're only giving it 2 points, right?

Which makes me think that carrying a copy of the Koran would be on your list.

And coming from the Middle East.

Having the appearance (skin tone, dress) of a person from that region.

"Acting suspiciously" is a gimme. It can mean whatever you want.

And pretty soon you find yourself only pulling people out of line exactly conforming with your expectations, which is a very dangerous (in terms of constrained focus) thing to do -- and a full on, very visible, war on an ethnicity and religion.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:12 AM on February 12, 2010


It really absurd.

I'm pretty sure my Arabic Phrasebook that I carried on flights to and from Morroco last year would have included the words "Terrorist" and or "Guns" perhaps "Bombs" somewhere in those pages. perhaps in the travel warnings section... is that really suspicious?
posted by mary8nne at 7:16 AM on February 12, 2010


hmm yes this is not 100% bullshit thanks

What's with the rude tone? Can you not have a discussion like an adult?

From CNN -- TUOHEY: They had a tie and jacket on. And as I'm looking at them, you know, they're holding their IDs up, and I'm looking at them. It's not nice, but I said, "If this doesn't look like two Arab terrorists, I've never seen two Arab terrorists."
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:24 AM on February 12, 2010


you have somehow attached Terrorism to Arabic in your head

You will notice that "terrorism" was attached to the Arabic flash cards.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:26 AM on February 12, 2010


GRIFFIN: One hour and 43 minutes into Tuohey's day, two men approached his ticket counter, rushing to catch the 6:00 flight to Boston.

TUOHEY: They had a tie and jacket on. And as I'm looking at them, you know, they're holding their IDs up, and I'm looking at them. It's not nice, but I said, "If this doesn't look like two Arab terrorists, I've never seen two Arab terrorists."

GRIFFIN (on camera): That was your first reaction?

TUOHEY: That was my thought as I'm looking at them. I'm looking at their licenses and I'm looking at them. And that thought ran through my mind.

GRIFFIN: Where did that thought go?

TUOHEY: I don't know. At the -- immediately, I felt guilty about thinking something like that. I just said, "This is awful." How, you know -- I've checked in thousands of Arabic people over the years, you know, in doing the same job. "Businessmen," I said. "These are just a couple of Arab business guys."

GRIFFIN (voice-over): But something about these two men was different. Tuohey says the younger man, Abdul Aziz Alomari (ph) could barely speak English. The other was Muhammad Atta. Tuohey says he had the eyes of a killer.

TUOHEY: He did. He had the deadest eyes I've ever seen.

GRIFFIN: Setting aside his gut reaction, Tuohey issued the boarding passes. Less than three hours later, Tuohey was told by a co-worker that American Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

TUOHEY: I said, "Oh, my God." I said, "I put two people on that plane." And I was feeling horrible, you know? Here I was think that these guys were terrorists, you know. I just had a flashback. I said, "Now the poor bastards are dead." And then you get the word on the second plane, and then it was like a punch in the stomach.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You knew then that those two guys were involved?

TUOHEY: As soon as I heard. The second I heard it. I said, "I was right. I was right." You know, and it was just -- I don't know how you describe it. How your stomach twists and turns. You get sick to your stomach. GRIFFIN: Still does?

TUOHEY: To this day. Not so much -- like I felt ashamed that I did not react to my instincts.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Once he and other employees realized what was happening, they called the FBI. Within hours, he Tuohey viewing this videotape of the two Arab men he had ticketed passing through security. He told the FBI who they were. He also told them that he observed something curious on the tape.

TUOHEY: They said, "What do you mean?" I said, Well, these guys had on -- they were very business looking. They had on ties and jackets." I said, "If you look at these guys, they both have like open collar -- they have like dress shirts with open collar." I said, "But that's them."

GRIFFIN: Tuohey went home after that and watched the dreadful events unfold on television. His wife, a flight attendant, was grounded in another city. He was alone. The next day, this self- described tough kid from a Boston housing project broke into tears. He talked with a psychologist the airline referred him to. Then he called the one person he knew could help.

TUOHEY: I called my mother. And she said, "What are you crying for?" I said, "I feel bad about all them people that got killed." And the said, "Well, what did you have to do with it?" I told her. She said, "I'm coming up."

GRIFFIN: His 91-year-old mother told him it wasn't his fault, a judgment he believes the 9/11 Commission has now confirmed. Warnings had been conveyed to the highest levels of government, but no one had instructed Mike Tuohey to be more vigilant.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:49 AM on February 12, 2010


KAC, ticket agents != airport security.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:50 AM on February 12, 2010


hmm yes this is not 100% bullshit thanks

I'd never heard that story, so I googled. It comes up in vague ways on comments from Yglesias to Schneier to 911-Truth blogs but the detail are never the same as it's retold.

Searching for the name of the ticket agent plus Atta yields many stories about the ticket agent's recollections three to four years later. They are built upon a pretty scant collection of quotations but spun in different ways, from race-baiting Steve Sailor to an oh-so-precious Oprah treatment.

The bottom line is that Tuohey was a ticket agent in the Portland, Maine Jetport. Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari went through security twice, in both Portland and in Logan International. Atta was even selected by CAPPS for additional screening in Portland. What the ticket agent says he felt years after the fact is not sane foundation for developing a security protocol.

From CNN -- TUOHEY: They had a tie and jacket on. And as I'm looking at them, you know, they're holding their IDs up, and I'm looking at them. It's not nice, but I said, "If this doesn't look like two Arab terrorists, I've never seen two Arab terrorists."

Yeah, but they weren't wearing jackets or ties! And the important part of Tuohey's statement is the part that goes, "...I've never seen two Arab terrorists." If you've never seen what you've supposed to be looking for, not in 37 years on the job, how the hell do you know it when you see it?
posted by peeedro at 9:52 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


What the ticket agent says he felt years after the fact is not sane foundation for developing a security protocol.

Oh hell. Let's assume that he did feel this way at the time. Does he remember all the times he got "that feeling" and nothing happened? What about all the other times other officers felt that way? Cause if this is going to be the kind of thing you're going to act on, you'd better be able to account for how many times you're going to jump into action over gut instincts. And yes, you're going to have to ask yourself how many times that gut instinct is based on completely irrational prejudice.

You're playing Nostradamus with security here. Just because you had a nightmare and the next morning there was an earthquake doesn't mean your dreams should form the next early warning system. Ye gods, poor grasp of probability accounts for half of the hysteria we have over this stuff.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:58 AM on February 12, 2010


What's with the rude tone? Can you not have a discussion like an adult?

What's with the rude tone? Can you not have a discussion like an adult?

Let's see, you won't answer simple questions, you're evading the issues, moving the goalposts, and you post unsourced things that are lies. How is anyone supposed to respond? You're being fundamentally dishonest and you are arguing in bad faith.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:22 AM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, but you know what's really bad faith? Islamofascism.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:38 AM on February 12, 2010


Maybe I am not understand what you are trying to say Surfurrus but are you seriously suggesting these 'Bits and pieces from quoted statements by others' mean there is some conspiracy going on here?

Not 'conspiracy' -- but I certainly don't think we know half the truth -- since so far all we have are 'facts' given by this man. I don't fault the 'authorities' for not giving 'their side' of the story -- I wouldn't expect them to detail their security tactics (i.e., what to identify as 'erratic' behavior in an airport line, or how to question a suspect).

Yes, I am a skeptic, but I am also going on what I had learned from a custom agent way back who told a story about how he did 'profiling' for drug runners. As like the Israelis, he watched for nervous behavior. He watched for the 'least likely' person as well (i.e., the clean cut jock). If the passport indicated Karachi or such, the questioning would accelerate.

I suspect that TSA are being trained in a similar way, and I, personally, don't mind that they are overcautious (overzealous?) when confronted with 'bits and pieces' such as those of this case. Yes, nervous behavior is a tricky call; a passport listing several recent visits to countries that are presently fighting radical Muslims is a bit suspicious; the ID that didn't match the person is more of a concern. I doubt the Arab language flash cards figured in except to the initial agent at the gate (probably one less trained).

AND ... now that the fur is flying, I am a bit puzzled by how this young man seems to be enjoying the limelight. His demeanor in the video is more of a reality show persona than a person seeking justice. That's just my opinion.

AND ... I just want to say, if this is a complete mess up by the TSA, it is still good to hear of this kind rather than the usual ones which have involved knee-jerk persecution of innocent people just because of ignorant fears of Arab-looking/dressed/speaking people.
posted by Surfurrus at 10:51 AM on February 12, 2010


Oh, btw, I don't *like* the idea of losing civil liberties and the loss of freedom to travel. I am as angry as anyone. But, I wouldn't fight the good fight at the airport!

I'm just saying I wouldn't be stupid enough to arrive at an airport as this young man did and then argue with the agents. He was lucky in a way -- you would think he would know better from traveling to other countries. There are places where one simply doesn't take any chances of being 'taken out of line' by airport security.
posted by Surfurrus at 11:04 AM on February 12, 2010


you won't answer simple questions, you're evading the issues, moving the goalposts, and you post unsourced things that are lies. How is anyone supposed to respond? You're being fundamentally dishonest and you are arguing in bad faith.

Eh? There's a bajillion people commenting at me at once; I can't keep up with all the responses. No, I didn't directly answer your demand for a list, but I thought the quote I provided made my point. You just chose to huffily dismiss it as "bullshit".

I'm not being dishonest or arguing in bad faith. Maybe it's because I spent a decade living in Asia where society values the collective welfare more highly than individual freedoms, but I believe that in some cases the needs of the community take precedence over the rights of a singular person. In taxation, for example: the government takes money from the individual so that the wider society can benefit.

The same philosophy applies in matters of security. In my mind the safety of the community is the most important, so it is better that an innocent person misses his flight in the process of the protection of the common welfare, than for a guilty person to be free to inflict harm on the community. There does of course need to be a balance, but I believe we should err towards the side of the group.

So this isn't bad faith; I believe this. If you've ever been to Singapore then you can appreciate how the primacy of the group benefits the most people. Yes, the democratic process there is a joke, the government monitors people more closely than I'd like, but it's also very clean, orderly, affluent, and there's very little crime. Sounds like a good trade-off to me.

The security methods I'm advocating are those used by one of the most successful agencies in the world. That they may infringe on some individual freedoms is not that important to me for the reasons I explain above, because they seem to be effective. Of course I do understand that other people value individual liberties more highly, so, yaay, let's have a debate.

Where did I post "unsourced things that are lies"?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:37 AM on February 12, 2010


Where did I post "unsourced things that are lies"?

The guard's story that has no basis in established fact is a lie, and you didn't source it, presumably thinking that no one would follow through. If you really prefer Singapore's ideas of justice, though, we're not going to have too much common ground on this issue. Good luck; may you never find yourself at its mercy. I mean that sincerely.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:54 AM on February 12, 2010


“But because this kind of profiling is politically incorrect, the agent immediately felt guilty about his assumption and took no action.”

Totally. And Bill Clinton asked the Israelis to set him free from prison.

So, just before 9/11, Muhammad Atta should have been racially profiled but wasn’t because one agent felt guilty. The other 40 times he flew in and out of and around the country – what? Same agent? They all felt guilty?

Or is skin color and ethnicity more important than other, genuinely useful screening such as the fact he was flying in and out of Germany to Afghanistan meeting with terrorist brass, living in an apartment with a dozen or so Al Qaeda cadre even though his school roommates and everyone else who ever lived with him said he was aggressively self-absorbed and close minded, kept ‘losing’ his passport, changing his name and nationality on a variety of traceable documents (including his will), was in the mosque all the time but spoke to no one (Islam is a pretty convivial religion if you’re not a psycho, so the fanatics with the blazing stares not talking to anyone and growing the beard more for political than devotion, yeah, kinda tend to stand out), kept heading out on Hajj (which is unusual for a younger man), started cutting ties to family and friends, started frequenting a militant fundamentalist Mosque in Germany and hanging out with a known Syrian terrorist (Zammar), getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in wire transfers from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew from the UAE, flying back and forth in the U.S. (Vegas, Florida, Georgia, etc.) with no paper trail and other places like Spain (where he didn’t stay at any hotel – pfft, no big red warning flag there)?

The Bundeskriminalamt (the German FBI) saying (to everyone, the U.S., Interpol, everyone) he was in the Base’s ‘terrorist training camps’ as early as the late 90s – not as important a data point given it’s just 6 or 8 months after the dual truck bomb attacks at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam?
The State Department cut him a break after that, what, because they were all guilty about racial profiling?
Or is it more plausible that they completely screwed up by not scrutinizing him based on behavior and relationship indicators?

Nick George seems like a good student.
So did Atta. That’s why they cut him a break coming in to the U.S. Sometimes profiling can really bite you on the ass, eh?

“Your right of course. Anyone with facial hair is a cause for concern.”

Well, if they look different than their photo. Yeah, it’s one thing. And a major change like that – hairy to clean cut, enough to make one go ‘hm.’ That in concert with his overseas travel. On top of his (taking the TSA’s word for it) looking nervous, all that.
Yeah that mounts up to suspicious. Worth pulling him out of line and asking him a few questions.

But it certainly doesn’t justify harassment. And again, even if the TSA was completely on the level here and doing their jobs properly, the inefficiencies of the system still mount up to a self-defeating process and a big waste of time and energy.
They spent 5 hours on this guy diverting resources from looking for someone who could be a more likely threat. Once George's bag was searched and they knew he wasn’t carrying anything dangerous they should have cut him loose.

“Tuohey says he had the eyes of a killer.”

That’s totally why killers and con men never get away with anything. They look so distinctively evil. Hell, I look like a big jolly macho ‘good to his mother’ douchebag with manners so dainty, chivalric and philistine you’d figure I’m an, albeit neanderthalic, pussycat (ok, some of that is true), but I’ve put more killers underground than Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya. If it were as easy as looking at them we wouldn’t need to pay anyone to investigate anything.

I'm not disputing your facts. But Joe Garbageman or Fred Powerline worker thinks someone looks suspicious – hey, we’ve got Total Information Awareness? Their collection, analysis and evaluation of human intelligence is just as good as an operator with millions of dollars worth of training and years of experience? (cybernetic human dynamic chains are swell for finding balloons, whether Mr. Ayoub is taking photos cause he likes the scenery of is planning to asplode something – not so much). After 9/11, everyone is a counterterrorist. Hell, we should just cut the foreplay and give meter readers and package delivery people MP5s.

Who cares what Tuohey thought? There were gigantic apparatus’ in place from intelligence to operational security, not to mention the ballbreakers in the executive branch, that were in place in layer after layer for exactly this sort of thing, with direct warnings before the fact by knowlegable professionals (who were completely, and repeatedly ignored) and in fact drills by not only air defense but the Navy and FBI counterterrorism elements for at least a year, almost 2, to deal with *exactly* this sort of situation – but no, if thousands of people die in the most damaging attack on American soil since the Brits burned down the White House, it’s because Tuohey the ticket sales guy didn’t go with his gut and racially profile this one guy one time.

The biggest emotional problem isn't guilt. It's that, unlike Israel, terrorism for the U.S. is still rare enough and harmless enough that we can safely make boogeymen out of it for money. It's fear, but it's horror movie fear. Which means we can be repressed and controlled (as opposed to genuine 'straighten this out or we'll kill you' survival panic-type fear).
It's not a survival issue, yet.
It will be sooner or later.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:24 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


The guard's story that has no basis in established fact is a lie, and you didn't source it,

What are you talking about? I linked it to a transcript of the man's own words from a CNN interview. How is that not a credible source? That right-wingers may have repeated it for their rhetorical purposes doesn't mean it's untrue.

presumably thinking that no one would follow through.

This is rude and unnecessary. You don't know me, and your assumptions are false. Your dismissive, bullying tone reminds me of this comment about the trolling manner of Bill O'Reilly.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:33 PM on February 12, 2010


Smedleyman wrote: "“And a major change like that – hairy to clean cut, enough to make one go ‘hm.’ "

Interestingly, as a white person born in Kansas, I have found that going from clean shaven to hairy raises no flags whatsoever. Last time I came back from overseas, I was asked exactly one question by immigration: "How was your trip?"

My nonwhite (US Citizen) traveling companions, on the other hand, were harangued by both Immigration and Customs. Interesting how that works. Annoying, too, given the extra 20 minutes I had to wait around for them.
posted by wierdo at 12:51 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Re: Singapore. I will say they have a low incidence of terrorism. But very authoritarian governments often do. Considering more people are killed by their own governments than by terrorists - censorship, violence against children, denial of free speech and assembly, religious suppression and other civil liberties completely off the table - still not so much a great trade off.

Sure, civil liberties are nice to have but there are practical reasons they tend to add stability to a society. Without the transparency and accountability civil liberties secure, you have no real oversight over whether what the government is doing is efficient or serving some arbitrary or self-serving end.
So you can have a constant downwards spiraling negative feedback loop: are you having to spend more on security because there’s a terrorist threat, or is there a terrorist threat because you have to justify spending so much on security?
posted by Smedleyman at 1:01 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


“Interestingly, as a white person born in Kansas, I have found that going from clean shaven to hairy raises no flags whatsoever.”
I’m not denying racial profiling exists. I’m saying there are legitimate security reasons, in the aggregate, for asking this particular guy some questions given the TSA’s take (whatever the substantiated facts ultimately are in this instance).
The hairy/clean, not looking like one’s ID, being just one thing.
Even bouncers check people on that.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2010


Wow... back when I was active duty I made a point of carrying an Arabic novel with me when I'd fly somewhere, partly because long boring flights are a good place to study, and, as a linguist for the Army, I was required to maintain my language skills. But also it was partly to bait paranoid and pathetic TSA agents, who would surely be chagrined for impugning a Soldier who was actually (in theory) making a difference in their much-vaunted War on Terror, rather than playing "security" fetishist in the airport. Fortunately, everyone was always very polite to me and I was never stopped or challenged so I never got to be indignant and make them choke on their yellow-ribbon-sticker "support our troops who are keeping us safe from TERROR!(tm)" talk. But the thing is, you know, I only did it because I never thought that anyone would ever actually stop me or question me about having language materials on me; I mean, all my tough talk was more joking than anything.

But now if they really might detain me and I no longer can claim moral superiority for defending their freedoms or whatever I guess I'll just have to be satisfied with the inflight magazine and sudoku. I think this means the terrorists have won.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 11:01 AM on February 13, 2010


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