George Carlin famously claimed there were “seven words you can never say on television.” In light of the controversy over my recent ejection from a United Airlines flight, I want to pose the following question today—
Are there certain “taboo” words that cannot be uttered on a commercial airplane without fear of being thrown off the flight?
Based on the 700+ comments in my previous post, there is no consensus on the issue. In fact, opinions are so starkly divided that I am surprised this issue has not come up more often in the past.
I still do not know exactly why I was thrown off the United flight to Istanbul. According to the captain, it was for continuing to take pictures after being told to stop (a lie). Others have opined that it must have been my use of the word terrorist in a conversation with a flight attendant.
Whatever the reason, many have put forward the notion that there are certain words that should never be used onboard an airplane (or at least on a U.S. carrier). Here’s a list of seven:
I refer to Carlin’s monologue in jest, but the following discussion about what you can or cannot say onboard an airplane is quite serious. Let’s start with the baseline that no words are illegal—that no government laws banning my seven words above or any of their derivatives could withstand constitutional scrutiny without regard to the context in which they are used.
For those who argue that “out of an abundance of caution” or “for our safety” these words should not be said, stop for a moment and think about what you are advocating. Then tell me why, as I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation that is not rooted in fear.
First, consider that me or any other traveler stepping onboard a commercial airplane flight in the U.S. undergoes rigorous screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) prior to flight. I participate in TSA’s PreCheck program, meaning the Department of Homeland Security performed a background check on me. If we have any faith in those tests and screenings, we must first acknowledge that no passenger poses a systemic threat to the security of the aircraft.
But all of this is so unsatisfying. To really address this issue, we must get to the root of the problem: fear. Irrational fear. I address the following in particular to my American readership.
Let’s return to 9/11 for a moment, the “trump card” that censors trot out to justify the arbitrary action of power-tripping flight crews to remove passengers from airplanes. Once again, I challenge anyone to demonstrate the malignant harm in the utterance of a word.
Terrorism is not about knocking down buildings or killing people. Those are welcome side-effects to those who wish to inflict harm, but terrorism is about something much more sinister and costly—it is about fear and changing the way people live their lives. Osama Bin Laden told Al-Jazeera in a 2001 interview, “I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people in — and the West in general — into an unbearable hell and a choking life.”
I don’t think anyone would consider life in America to be an “unbearable hell” but Bin Laden’s sentiment was tragically not wholly wrong. Think about what has happened in the 11 years since 9/11. We’ve seen a perpetual erosion of our civil liberties displayed on a number of fronts. Security theatre at U.S. airports in which citizens are virtually stripped searched without probable cause and coerced into observing odious restrictions like liquid bans or mandatory shoe removals. An Orwellian PATRIOT Act which undermines our right to privacy by allowing virtually unchecked government surveillance. A secret decree (too sensitive too publish they say) by the White House of this and the previous administration giving the President carte blanche power to assassinate any person without due process of law, even American citizens, if deemed an enemy combatant.
And then there is war. In a 2004 message, Bin Laden stated, ” All we have to do is send two mujaheddin […] to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written “al-Qaeda” in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” Hello Iraq.
I know some of you will find this crass, but here goes—our sick fascination with “terrorism” and the fear associated with it in America is both irrational and immoral. This irrationality was displayed by the FA who threw me off the airplane, but let’s just examine our national priorities. To listen to our leaders, you would think terrorism is the most incipient threat to our civilization. Don’t think I am dismissing terrorism as a threat. 2,977 died in the 9/11 attacks. This was particularly horrific because the death all came at once and affected those far removed from the politics of statecraft .
But the U.S responded by waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan—the ongoing and longest war in U.S. history– 3,169 coalition forces have died (nearly 2,000 Americans). It is anyone’s guess as to how many civilians have been killed in the Afghan War, but most put the number in excess of 20,000. In Iraq, over 120,000 civilians were killed and millions were maimed or seriously injured. 4,477 Americans have died in the Iraq War. Over one trillion dollars has been spent. Kind of makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it?
And we need not limit our discussion to war. Last year there were about 31,000 firearm-related deaths in the United States and over 36,000 motor vehicle-related deaths. Over 570,000 Americans died from cancer in 2012. Five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and hundreds of thousands die each year because of it. And yet all we hear about is the war on terror…
We have our priorities wrong…terribly wrong. And this was shown so clearly in what happened to me onboard my flight to Turkey last week. I will not apologize for saying the word “terrorist”. I regret being thrown off the aircraft—because I did have an appointment in Baku that I had to re-schedule and because I don’t like being made to look like a criminal—but I don’t regret my choice of words.
As long as we remain afraid of even uttering the word “terrorism” Osama Bin Laden can claim victory. Even in his death, this legacy goes on. Until we reform our attitudes and can discuss terrorism, bombs, and guns without hot flashes of fear, the Al Qaida mission against America has succeeded in the vilest fashion.
May all of us learn that to live in fear is to give the terrorists exactly the victory they crave. But by using these seven “naughty” words freely—and dare I say jokingly—we can demonstrate that Americans will not be tied to the chains of the past or hamstrung into changing our way of life based on the scare tactics of others. Let us remember Alexis de Tocqueville’s statement—”As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.” May we learn from the past and seek the light, going forward rather than cowering in the name of fear.