August 30, 2007

Is Speaking Arabic Suspicious?

According to news reports, an American Airlines flight was delayed for several hours in San Diego Tuesday night when worried passengers overheard other passengers speaking Arabic. Ironically, the men speaking Arabic were returning to their homes in Detroit after training Marines at Camp Pendleton destined for Iraq. From a linguistic point of view, I guess the silver lining is that the worried passengers were able to identify Arabic.

This unfortunate incident reveals a common confusion of language, ethnicity, and religion. On the one hand, most speakers of Arabic are not terrorist material. On the other hand, potential Islamic terrorists speak many languages in addition to Arabic, including Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Persian, Indonesian, Malay, Turkish, Chechen, French, and English. A terrorist group with any intelligence will use people who do not attract attention to themselves.

It isn't surprising that hearing Arabic might make a passenger wonder, but you'd think that a moment's thought would overcome the impulse to notify the authorities in the absence of additional, more suspicious, behaviour. Indeed, insofar as the systems for detecting weapons and explosives work, there isn't really any reason not to allow people who actually do have terrorist sympathies to fly. As long as you know he has no weapons or explosives, you could let Osama bin Laden on the plane. I'd rather have him as a seatmate than many others - at least he doesn't drink.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 30, 2007 02:07 PM