It seems that the terrorist threat is no longer just about ’scruffy-looking men of Middle-Eastern appearance’, but also about t-shirts, especially those with Arabic script. Some ‘passengers’ are starting anti-terror vigilante groups, on the watch for any suspicious-looking activity. So, next time you’re flying, and you don’t mind when you get there, and you’d prefer not to sit next to racist fuckwits or toddlers, wear a t-shirt with a slogan in ‘foreign-looking script’. But be careful: it may blow up in your face.
The next day, I went to JFK in the morning to catch my Jet Blue plane to California. I reached Terminal 6 at around 7:15 am, issued a boarding pass, and checked all my bags in, and then walked to the security checkpoint. For the first time in my life, I was taken to a secondary search . My shoes were searched, and I was asked for my boarding pass and ID. After passing the security, I walked to check where gate 16 was, then I went to get something to eat. I got some cheese and grapes with some orange juice and I went back to Gate 16 and sat down in the boarding area enjoying my breakfast and some sunshine.
At around 8:30, two men approached me while I was checking my phone. One of them asked me if I had a minute and he showed mehis badge, I said: “sure”. We walked some few steps and stood in front of the boarding counter where I found out that they were accompanied by another person, a woman from Jet Blue.
One of the two men who approached me first, Inspector Harris, asked for my id card and boarding pass. I gave him my boarding pass and driver’s license. He said, “People are feeling offended because of your t-shirt”. I looked at my t-shirt: I was wearing my shirt which states in both Arabic and English, “We will not be silent”. You can take a look at it in this picture taken during our Jordan meetings with Iraqi MPs. I said, “I am very sorry if I offended anyone, I didnt know that this t-shirt will be offensive”. He asked me if I had any other T-shirts to put on, and I told him that I had checked in all of my bags and I asked him, “Why do you want me to take off my t-shirt? Isn’t it my constitutional right to express myself in this way?” The second man in a greenish suit interfered and said “people here in the US don’t understand these things about constitutional rights”. So I answered him “I live in the US, and I understand it is my right to wear this t-shirt.”
Then I once again asked the three of them: “How come you are asking me to change my t-shirt? Isn’t this my constitutional right to wear it? I am ready to change it if you tell me why I should. Do you have an order against Arabic t-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script?” so Inspector Harris answered, “You can’t wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads “I am a robber” and going to a bank.” I said, “But the message on my t-shirt is not offensive, it just says ‘We will not be silent.’ I got this t-shirt from Washington DC. There are more than a 1000 t-shirts printed with the same slogan, you can google them or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is printed in many other languages: Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, English, etc.” Inspector Harris said: “We cant make sure that your t-shirt means we will not be silent, we don’t have a translator. Maybe it means something
else”. I said: “But as you can see, the statement is in both Arabic and English”. He said “maybe it is not the same message”. So based on the fact that Jet Blue doesn’t have a translator, anything in Arabic is suspicious because maybe it’ll mean something bad!
Meanwhile, a third man walked in our direction. He stood with us without introducing himself, and he looked at inspector Harris’s notes and asks him: “is that his information?”, inspector Harris answered “yes”. The third man, Mr. Harmon, asks inspector Harris: “Can I copy this information?”, and Inspector Harris says “yes, sure.”
Inspector Harris said: “You don’t have to take of your t-shirt, just put it on inside-out.” I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman interfered and said “let’s reach a compromise. I will buy you a new t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this one”. I said “I want to keep this t-shirt on.” Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said “No, we can’t let you get on that airplane with your t-shirt”. I said “I am ready to put on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a thing. I want to talk to your supervisor”. Inspector Harris said, “You don’t have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your t-shirt. Jetblue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, and customers called when you were waiting here in the boarding area.”
It was then that I realized that my t-shirt was the reason why I had been taken to the secondary checking.
I asked the four people again to let me talk to any supervisor, and they refused.
The Jet Blue woman was asking me again to end this problem by just putting on a new t-shirt, and I felt threatened by Mr. Harmon’s remarks as in, “Let’s end this the nice way.”Taking in consideration what happens to other Arabs and Muslims in US airports, and realizing that I will miss my flight unless I covered the Arabic script on my t-shirt as I was told by the four agents, I asked the Jet Blue woman to buy me a t-shirt and I said, “I don’t want to miss my flight.”
She asked, what kind of t-shirts do you like. Should I get you an “I heart New York t-shirt?”. So Mr. Harmon said “No, we shouldn’t ask him to go from one extreme to another”. I asked Mr. Harmon why does he assume I hate New York if I had some Arabic script on my t-shirt, but he didn’t answer.