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Away From Home

Friday, July 29, 2005

On the "Arabic Assassin"

I'm bumping this back to the top because the debate is quite interesting, and I want to give everyone a chance to join in.



'Arabic Assassin' loses baggage screener job
TSA fires Houston rapper who sings of rape, murder, mass attacks

HOUSTON - Bassam Khalaf was paid to help keep U.S. air travel safe as a baggage screener. His alter ego, the "Arabic Assassin," rapped about flying a plane into a building.

The Transportation Security Administration could not reconcile the two and fired him last week, saying his free speech rights as an aspiring rap singer did not extend to a right to check luggage at Houston Intercontinental Airport.

"I was one of the ones screening the bags thoroughly," Khalaf said Friday. "I wouldn't let a bomb get on a plane."

He also was the self-proclaimed Arabic Assassin, who didn't do songs about love but preferred to sing about killing, raping and blowing things up.

From one of his songs: "My name is Bassam, a one-man band, I came from sand, affiliated with the Taliban."

There are two ways to look at this story. Either this man was unjustly fired for exercising his free speech rights on his own personal time, or he was rightly fired because he was unworthy of the public's trust.

I contend that he was unjustly fired. I believe in meritocracy, where the important thing is how well you do your job. It doesn't matter who you know or where you went to school. If you're good at your job, you get to keep it, and possibly even get promoted. There is no indication that Khalaf ever made a mistake as a screener. Later in the article, the TSA even admits (albeit implicitly) that he was fired solely because of what he lawfully did on his free time, and not because he was a bad employee.

Khalaf did nothing illegal. People get fired all the time because they engage in criminal activity. This is not one of those situations.

At its core, this story is about differing opinions. The TSA fired Khalaf for the indefensible reason that it disagreed with Khalaf's ideas and expression.

Doesn't this fundamentally violate the core principle of freedom of speech?

The First Amendment protects your ability to express yourself against discrimination by the federal government (and also against state governments, through the 14th amendment). In other words, the First Amendment exists to protect against situations like this. The First Amendment is supposed to guarantee that the government cannot discriminate against you just because it doesn't like something you said. We cannot let this protection be eroded.

Remember, "If it can't be abused, it isn't freedom."

What do you think?


  • He was just playing a part on stage, and as long as he wasn't really plotting anything, then he's being fired for his thoughts and words. That should be protected, as should be his job.

    However, it wouldn't hurt if he'd take a course or two in good taste.

    By Blogger Logan C. Adams, at 7/18/2005 04:32:00 PM  

  • Conversely, how should the government have handled him as a job applicant had they known then what they know now?

    Would you want to be the HR person responsible for hiring someone who spoke about hijacking a plane when the story broke?

    By Blogger ChrisHarrop, at 7/19/2005 09:09:00 AM  

  • What if he would have allowed something to go on board? Then everyone would be angry TSA didn't can him. What if someone who wrote rape stories or was a member of NAMBLA worked at a school? Would the freedom of speech (or association) argument work there? Don't forget in one rap he claimed to be "affiliated with the Taliban." How should a female screener feel around a man whom desires to be part of the most oppresive government in modern times?

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/21/2005 06:39:00 PM  

  • If he had allowed something to go on board, then he would be treated the same as if he were a middle-class white guy, or a 21-year-old girl, or anyone else. That's what it means to be diverse, that's what it means to be nondiscriminatory, that's what it means to be free.

    You contend that he shouldn't be allowed to work there, because female screeners would feel offended by his self-association with the Taliban. Why is it that the women are allowed to have (and presumably express) feelings, but this guy isn't? A lot of men are offended by feminist theory; should the TSA ban all members of NOW? What about hardcore Christians that are offended by atheists and Muslims? What about atheists and Muslims that are offended by hardcore Christians?

    Freedom of speech and freedom of association are guaranteed by the Constitution. All persons in the United States enjoy these freedoms -- including you.

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/21/2005 07:33:00 PM  

  • All right let's change some variables.

    A white lawyer for the DOJ does his job while at work, then goes to the karoke bar and sings about burning crosses. No what?

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/21/2005 08:19:00 PM  

  • Doesn't matter, so long as he does his job effectively. Especially at a karaoke bar -- nobody expects that what you sing at a karaoke bar is what you actually believe.

    There are situations that clearly cross the line. To use an extreme example, suppose that a middle school teacher gets caught with a meth lab in his garage. In this case, I believe he should be fired, because his activities have affected his job -- a big part of being a teacher is being a role model in society.

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/21/2005 09:54:00 PM  

  • Isn't the appearance of trustworthiness a big part of being a DHS employee?

    Isn't art a manifestation of feelings?
    Why would someone whom doesn't believe in killing people want to be associated with murderers, and want to portray himself as such?

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/22/2005 05:28:00 AM  

  • I think the more fundamental question is, should DHS (or any other government entity) be in the business of psychoanalyzing workers? In your world, how far would DHS have to go to try and figure out what every one of its tens of thousands of workers believe? And at what point does a failure to know that a worker has expressed support for the Taliban turn into legal liability?

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/22/2005 07:43:00 AM  

  • The government should certainly psychoanalyze workers in law enforcement, national defense, and the military.

    It would be difficult to find out about this kind of thinking without someone putting it to paper or a CD and plastering his face all over it.
    I think once they do know he wants to be associated with the taliban then liability does indeed fall on them.

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/22/2005 10:41:00 PM  

  • But from a legal perspective, what counts as "knowing"? Did the TSA "know" about the CD just because it was made, or do they actually have to see the CD?

    The difference is huge. If the standard is "they knew about it because it was in stores," then you're requiring the TSA to develop a huge investigative arm to its organization, responsible not only for screening and analyzing new hires, but also for continuing to keep track of what all of its tens of thousands of employees are doing in their spare time. They don't have enough money to fulfill their current duties, let alone fund thousands of investigators.

    If, on the other hand, the standard is "they knew because they actually saw," then suddenly there's an incentive for people not to know. Think about it -- you have to expect that every firing in these circumstances is going to be controversial, and likely to spur a lawsuit. Therefore, the more the TSA knows about the off-duty actions of its employees, the more it is exposing itself to lawsuit (since they would be required to fire people). Besides the hassle of being sued, litigation is massively expensive, and again, the TSA doesn't have enough money as it is.

    Finally, what should be the standard for what is unacceptable?

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/25/2005 08:24:00 PM  

  • Actually when you get employed by the TSA, as with most federal jobs you have to sign something saying you are not nor have even been in favor of the violent overthrow of the American government. This guy is going to lose no matter what. He told someone at work who told someone else, in this case he pretty much told his employer. What do you think about David Alan Coe/Johnny Rebel?

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/27/2005 03:50:00 AM  

  • You're assuming that he actually believes what he's saying, and that he isn't just saying it to get attention.

    To get hired by the government, you also have to say that you don't use drugs. Is anyone who raps about smoking dope automatically excluded from government employment?

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/27/2005 07:53:00 AM  

  • And I am unfamiliar with David Alan Coe and Johnny Rebel.

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/27/2005 07:55:00 AM  

  • When someone says something that insane and contrary to the mission he is suppose to be supporting, why should we assume he doesn't mean it?

    David Alan Coe is a country singer who recorded a lot of openly racist songs, back in the day, under the name Johnny Rebel.

    So would it be okay to say David Alan Coe was not a racist even when he was singing racist songs? Or should we assume he sings that crap because that's how he feels?

    Drug tests occur through out employment with a federal agency, so that actually would be easy to verify.

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/27/2005 01:25:00 PM  

  • Insane, according to who?

    We should assume he doesn't mean it because that's how the legal system works. Rappers sing all the time about doing drugs and assaulting and murdering people. Do they get charged with crimes? Does anybody really believe that DMX and Ludacris go around shooting people in their spare time?

    Besides, if the presumption is that they really believe what they're saying, what does that do to satire? Or acting? Many artists adopt "stage personas" that are very different than how they are off-stage. What if he was just trying to get attention?

    I've taken many positions that I don't believe in, just for the sake of debating. In fact, lawyers are trained to do just that.

    You cannot say whether or not Coe is a racist simply on the basis of lyrics that he sung.

    What if instead of rapping about the Taliban, he rapped about the KKK? What if his lyrics approved of "fundamentalist Islam", but didn't use the word "Taliban"?

    Or, and most interestingly, what if his music was pro-Communist? Should the TSA resort to McCarthyism, since Communism is widely viewed as an ideological enemy of the US?

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/28/2005 12:09:00 AM  

  • The issue is not charging him with a crime, the issue is if his belief system is contrary to the mission of the TSA. He has the right to say what he wants but he doesn't have a right to a job. Really it's just sad people are so afraid to call a spade a spade.

    By Blogger Lonewatchman, at 7/28/2005 11:40:00 AM  

  • The issue is not charging him with a crime, the issue is if his belief system is contrary to the mission of the TSA.

    You're right, the issue is not whether he should be charged with a crime. However, the standards remain the same, because whether we're talking about district court or the TSA, we're still talking about the government. Freedom of speech applies to the executive branch just the same as it applies to the judicial and legislative branches. Being punished for what you say violates your freedom of speech. There are only a couple of circumstances where you can be punished for your speech (i.e. obscenity and public danger), and "saying something the current administration disagrees with" is most definitely NOT on the list.

    At its core, the mission of any executive agency (for example, the TSA) is a mere reflection of the agenda of the current administration. The President, as head of the executive branch, sets the objectives and policies of all executive agencies, and even personally appoints all of the top-level leadership of every agency. Therefore, when you say he should be fired for believing (but not acting) something that is contrary to an agency's mission, you're saying that nobody should be allowed to work for the government unless they are fully on board with the current administration's ideology and policy. I hope you realize that such a scenario is absurd, and is not part of the American way of life.

    And I continue to maintain that we cannot definitively determine what his belief system is, based solely on the lyrical content of one CD.

    He has the right to say what he wants but he doesn't have a right to a job.

    So, according to that logic, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination measures should not exist, because people don't have the right to have a job?

    I want you to address my communism question; it's really quite applicable. Should a government employee be fired for speaking favorably about communism, on the grounds that it's contrary to American government? Your answer undoubtedly has to be "Yes", because communist speech can be seen as repugnant to the Constitution itself, rather than just the desires of the current administration. So should they be fired just for speaking about it, even if it can't be proven that they actually believe it?

    Really it's just sad people are so afraid to call a spade a spade.

    I can only assume that you're talking about me, and so I will address the comment as such. I have not said, nor do I now maintain, that he does or does not believe any certain thing. My point continues to be that we cannot presume one way or another, merely on the evidence of one CD's lyrics.

    A private company has the ability to make such a presumption, but the government does not, because it is constrained by the First Amendment.

    By Blogger Scott, at 7/28/2005 12:58:00 PM  

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