Did Southwest Airlines kick a passenger off for speaking Arabic?

Depending on which news account you believe, Southwest Airlines kicked a passenger off and Federal agents searched him because he spoke Arabic or because he made threats. How do we decide between these two claims?

The Daily Californian reports that Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a student at UC Berkeley, “was removed from Southwest Airlines flight 4260, detained by security officers, questioned by the FBI and refused service from Southwest after speaking Arabic before his flight took off.” Makhzoomi is a refugee from Iraq. He claims that an officer searched his genital area in public as police dogs stood by.

Southwest has stood by its decision. It claims a passenger reported “what were perceived to be threatening comments” by Makhzoomi, and that “it was the content of the passenger’s conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation.”

We don’t know what actually happened, so any analysis has to be speculative. However, Southwest’s case doesn’t sound good. Its report implies that it ejected Makhzoomi based on the uncorrborated allegations of one passenger, and it gives no details about the nature of the alleged threat. Southwest points at its use of diversity as a hiring criterion, but that has nothing to do with the issue. The airline doesn’t deny the way Makhzoomi says he was treated, and a public, intrusive, intimidating search is justified only if there was already strong evidence against him. What was that evidence?

A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police disagrees with Southwest’s story. He said, “The statement he made was not illegal, there was nothing that involved threats or anything like that so he was released.”

It’s typical in the United States to treat airline passengers as subjects without rights. In September 2011, a woman was taken off a flight, strip-searched, and imprisoned, because “someone on the plane reported that she and the men on her row were ‘conducting suspicious activity.'” The suspicious activity was that the men on her row went to the bathroom separately. It appears that any denunciation by another passenger is enough to get you treated as if you’d just pulled a gun on the pilot.

I don’t fly from US airports any more. The last few times I’ve flown to Germany, I’ve driven to Montreal’s airport. The one time I made an exception for business reasons, the TSA vandalized my luggage. I find the passenger’s claims of abuse more plausible than Southwest’s claim that he was making threats. If he was, why do the police say he wasn’t?

More information could make Southwest’s claim more (or even less) plausible, but as it stands, the incident confirms my decision to avoid air travel.

Update: The Intercept reports this:

Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, also argued in an email to Negar Mortazavi, a freelance journalist, on Tuesday evening, “we’ve seen multiple media reports where Mr. Makhzoomi confirms he openly discussed a terrorist organization on the phone, minutes before his flight was scheduled to depart.”

This seems to be a reference to the fact that Makhzoomi said he told his uncle he had asked the U.N. secretary-general about Iraq’s strategy for retaking territory from Islamic State militants.

It appears that Southwest regards even mentioning a terrorist organization as a “threat.”

Update 2: Here’s an index of Makhzoomi’s Huffington Post articles, which don’t look at all consistent with Southwest’s accusations against him.

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