August 31, 2006

Terrorism and the magical power of words

According to press reports, a man wearing a T-shirt with an Arabic slogan on it was denied boarding on a flight out of Kennedy airport recently. One of the officials reportedly told him: "Going to an airport with a T-shirt in Arabic script is like going to a bank and wearing a T-shirt that says, `I'm a robber'". It isn't clear, apparently, whether the culprits were airline staff or TSA staff.

This raises concerns about freedom of speech, of course, and about the competence of the people in charge of airport security (hint: your better terrorists don't advertise their occupation), but there is also a linguistic curiosity here. What, exactly, did they think they were protecting against? The slogan was certainly not a weapon. If he were a terrorist, wearing the T-shirt would not have assisted him in his task. It's true that Arabs figure prominently in the terrorism game, so it may make sense to pay particular attention to Arabs, but if that were the point, they wouldn't have denied him boarding, they would just have selected him for extra scrutiny. It is remotely possible that they thought that he was so powerful and dangerous that even without any weapons he was a threat, but in that case they surely would not have allowed him to board once he covered up the T-shirt, which is what they did. Assuming that they weren't engaged in simple harassment, which is a possibility, the only sense that I can make of this is that the officials concerned attributed to the words some sort of magical power that could be contained by covering them up. There have been societies in which people held such beliefs, but I wasn't aware that the United States in the 21st century was among them.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 31, 2006 03:02 AM