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The Terrorist Tee-Shirt

In response to the story of a man forced to change his shirt before boarding a plane because the shirt had Arabic writing on it, Bill Poser asks:

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. ... 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.

This was my initial reaction too, but I actually think there's a logical explanation. The airport security people did not think Mr. Jarrar was a terrorist. But they wanted to avoid any trouble caused by, or anxiety on the part of, bigoted passengers. The ability of words to upset people is hardly a "magical power." Given that some passengers would see the shirt, assume he was a terrorist, and get worked up, the security people decided to remove the source of the concern. Indeed, the worried passengers need not even have believed that Jarrar was a terrorist -- they may have known rationally that it was unlikely he was going to bring down their plane, but still be unable to suppress the phobia triggered by seeing the shirt.

This is not to say that asking Jarrar to remove his shirt wasn't still bigoted. It demonstrates greater concern with the comfort of non-Arab than Arab passengers. The correct response would be to tell the worried passengers to suck it up. But at least the decision to eliminate the shirt makes sense from that bigoted perspective.


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