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.
You really are trying to get on a no fly list aren’t you?!
If Matthew’s bank account was as large as his ego, he would have more money than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos combined.
If freedom of speech qualifies you for a no fly list, your country and its values have gone downhill more than it already appears.
Good points you make Matt. I have been following your story and am glad to see it gaining some attention. We as muslims have been putting up with this fear for a long time. As you mention, everyone goes through the security theatre but people are still somewhat anxious when they see me, a bearded man, or my scarf-adorning wife. We do have to be extremly careful with what we say and our actions, because we know we are being observed very carefully.
Being kicked off planes is not new for us muslims. Just google “muslim kicked off plane” and you’ll see many instances of unwarrented fear as you faced.
I am happy you are bringing attention to this topic.
We do not live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” when we cower in fear from government apparatchiks who decide what words we can or cannot use.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. These words that you’re not “allowed” to say on planes are just…words. Not actions, just words.
While flight crews like to fret on about the trauma of 911 keep in mind that Matt has been traumatized too and his life and viewpoint will never be the same. I hate to use that term to describe him (it’s not flattering) but accurate. Having someone suddenly walk up to you and say you’re being kicked off of a plane for a minor thing you said when you were trying your best to be a decent passenger and then threatening to call the police on you for simply trying to explain yourself undermines your trust and respect for the authorities forever. You know the saying about a conservative being a liberal whose mugged. When you personally experience an injustice it leaves a lasting mark. Matt’s eyes are now opened in a new way.
For some people reading his story, the lesson is to keep your head down and mouth shut and pray to not get noticed and if you want to feel “tough” make fun of anyone trying to defend civil rights as “going to get on a no fly list.” What a cowardly, dishonorable way to lead life but sadly a lot of people are like that.
By the same token, I don’t know if Matt is going to become a civil rights advocate for passenger rights but if he does, there are organizations he should contact rather than go it alone. The Association for Airline Passenger rights would be a good start. I think he’ll win this battle to salvage his reputation and having done so, I suggest he get as much documentation/support for what he does. This means getting written permission to take photos on planes and carry paper documentation of FAA rules with him.
In any case, any time he sits down in a business class seat and an FA starts running around screaming for everyone to fasten their seat belts even though the doors aren’t closed he’s going to think twice before saying anything. He’s going to find himself watching every word he says in the future.
I’ve experienced similar situations but fortunately I came out on the right end. In one case, I said I worried about catching a cold on a flight and said maybe it would be a good idea to wear a mask like I see Asian passengers on TV. I got a call from my manager and HR: I was being racist against Asians. This accusation came from a middle aged white woman. I laughed and laughed and management had to agree that such a statement wasn’t derogatory (if anything, it was a compliment. It’s SMART to take precautions on planes during flu season) and it revealed… watch what I say around the “ladies.”
So now people tell me I’m pretty saavy about office politics. This will not be his last encounter with these psychos in the air or in the workplace, sadly. My first one was about his age too. I have had about 4 similar encounters since then. He needs to remember: keep your eyes out for witnesses and supporters. When you observation someone getting nasty with you don’t reassure them but rather back off and let their open hostility become apparent to others (they raise their voices/hostility level to fill the void. That’s one trick.)
Poor kid hasn’t even started thinking about settling down and getting married yet. In about 5 year or so, his childhood friends are going to start getting divorced and telling him stories. Here’s a hint for him: Marry the girl who handles being told “no” with as much grace and kindness as she does when you give her want she wants. Watch how she treats men who are unattractive or poor or have nothing to offer her because that’s how she’s going to treat YOU when times are tough.
Hi Matthew, I really sympathize with you after reading your article on being thrown off the flight for the ground of taking picture. I have my share of being sternly reminded to put my purse on the floor, while really I see no harm in placing it next to me on my seat. There is still 1/4 of my seat space to put my purse nicely, and I feel much safer with my cash lying next to me, but well, never talk back with the FA, or they will threaten you.
And really the unofficially banned words is getting out of hand, if that is the reason why they ejected you, which is absolutely ridiculous. I frequently said it as a joke to my friend that my bag weigh a bomb. That doesn’t mean I brought bomb in my bag.
And banning word like Allah is downright discrimination. Really it is not a matter on the terrorist word at all, it is the vindictive FA, who felt the need to humiliate you because she felt you “made her hang your coat” and undermine her authority on the plane by talking back to her.
I couldn’t be more proud if you were my own son. You have stated so beautifully the thoughts which plague me – the irrational fear that permeates the actions of so many decisions made by people on a daily basis. It’s nice to know there are young people out there who can still reason, without the help of the government/authority to guide them. I am also impressed with the way in which you presented your argument, without viscious emotionally charged vengence. Your parents should be very proud of you.
“the land of the free and the home of the brave”… Are you kidding me!? What century are you guys living in?
We live in a country with an illusion of democracy, fueled by fear and hate.
As for Matt, good for you and your self righteous decorum, but you too, live in a fantasy la la land. Wake up and smell the roses.
Fear is what drives politics and the economy. You say there are more things that are killing people in US than terrorist, and yet our priority is set on the war on terrorism… This is true, however, it is FEAR that DRIVES politics and ECONOMY. Making warplane, ammunition, weapons, security gates, etc is what DRIVES the multi billion dollar industry, who in turn spends MILLIONS on lobbying the politicians to increase military contracts and defense.
Wait, the government is heading for the fiscal cliff, we need to cut military spending…but but but, war on terrorism can not be cut.
Let’s drive fear into the hearts of the US citizens so that we can continue the outrageous spending on defense budget.
Yes Matt, it’s truly sad, and not the ideological government that we voted for…but it’s how things truly work. So, it’s your protest against millions of dollars of lobbying to continue to drive that fear, that has been going on for centuries.
Good luck to you sir.
Hi. I’m here from the future. I agree with your comment wholeheartedly in the context of 2013 but WOW you won’t believe what’s happened since. Lol
Its safe to say the US is an oligarchy at this point. You still have lots of flag waving patriots (lol) who will say it’s a democracy but it’s not. More like a corporate-fueled duopoly that’s increased the defense budget every year but still doesn’t want to invest where it would really matter, in the health and betterment of its citizens. It’s increased by $125 BILLION from its 2013 price tag to a now staggering $725 BILLION in 2021.
I won’t even bother with the whole saga of our president from 2016-2020. What a shitshow that was. Then again, the new one isn’t much better. Same crap, different packaging.
Oh and there’s been a pandemic for over a year and a half now. Killed millions, billionaires increased their wealth exponentially and the poor got poorer. They threw us some scraps but ultimately it was just insulting. The good news is, it can’t get much worse, right???
Just who the hell ARE you, “Matthew”?
Over a decade of flying at 26… does that include holidays with your parents?
“Elite” status… is that by ripping off miles from “clients” that are mug enough to use this site?
Are you actually the person you represent yourself as? Not many Americans spell theatre as you did.
I see you have your home town as being in Germany. Do a lot of American flight time for that, considering you never actually mention ever leaving from Frankfurt where, it so happens, you “like” a site not dissimilar to this one. (ie, absolutely no contact details other than an online form). This was easily found on a popular social network.
You, sir, are nothing but a scammer and a blagger.
Dude(Steve), settle down. Are you some type of self appointed Colombo? I say self appointed because with your deductive skills, you’d never secure such a job!
As for the actual story–this is a symptom of a bigger problem that exists in our country. We are so caught up in political correctness and the many offshoots, that we actually behave improperly because of it. The 1st amendment protects our right to speak–ANY word. Not just the ones that various groups haven’t put on the no-no list. Ask yourself, or an expert, the last time we’ve averted a terrorist attack by denying boarding to an individual that spoke one of the words on THE LIST.
RE: your removal from your flight; It could really have been something as stupid as just saying ‘terrorist’, actually.
My friend’s wedding dress designer was flying with her dress to the wedding when he was asked about the garment bag (maybe because there was flexible steel boning in the bodice? Or perhaps simply because he was carrying it on instead of checking it,) he joked and said the dreaded T word.
He was detained for HOURS, he was interviewed multiple times and statements were taken multiple times, and finally he was allowed to fly but the dress and designer/guest almost didn’t make it to the wedding.
And he thought he was just being sociable, funny and having a nice chat to pass the time while they ran the huge dress through the scanner. Now, this was about 10 years ago, so 9/11 was really fresh in everyone’s mind, but just saying a word should not cause such a knee jerk reaction.
It puts me in mind of an event some years back when some men were removed from a flight for speaking Arabic amongst themselves. What is next?
I just wanted to say thank you for that quality OBL Quote. Very Very on the money.
You are misuing “SecureFlight”. SecureFlight is the program in which we, airlines, must submit your full name (as it appears on the ticket/reservation), gender, and date of birth to the TSA for vetting. Everyone participates, whether you like it or not. Do you mean PreCheck?
And to make things more interesting, it doesn’t even work that well. All of these “terrorists” that are caught by the government on INBOUND flights are detected via APIS data – the US Customs & Border Protection, not our lovely TSA. Just don’t let the general public know that a government agency, that’s been around for 60 some years, is better at finding folks than TSA…
Is it true that the senior editor of an airport safety magazine organised a test of airport security. He and his staff carried on themselves parts to complete a bomb through 57 airports around the world and not a single one of them was stopped?
And who exactly are you, Steve?
You seem to have spent an awful lot of time researching the background of a young man who’s experience on board a UA flight was independently corroborated by fellow passengers. Are you suggesting that experience never occurred?
Or are you saying the advocating for freedom of speech is an activity solely reserved for frauds? Because that’s what this blog post appears to be about.
What reason could you possibly have to accuse Matthew of being a fake?
Are you perhaps a fake yourself, hired by an airline PR firm to discredit a vocal and disgruntled customer?
Actually, “Steve,” I went to college with Matthew (in California, and I’ll leave out the specifics). Matt was always very well traveled, and we used to frequent flyertalk together and shares about flights. Even then, Matthew was very interested in airlines, and had elite status on United for as long as I can remember. Matthew is very mild-mannered, and I don’t believe for a second that he threatened or even disobeyed the flight attendant.
On the other hand, who are you, casting aspertions all around the internet with absolutely no proof. I don’t think Matthew makes a secret of his identity at all (the NBC news article he linked to cited his full name, as have many other blogs and news articles on the internet), and if you had bothered to do a quick google search, you’d see that Matthew was once a Philadelphia law student, and that he frequently travels in the US (although he now appears to live in Frankfurt, which I’m very jealous of). See, e.g., http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/free-flights-vegas-york-cancun-travel-deals-booking/story?id=12269522 , http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/you-gotta-go-distance-flyer-miles
I can’t believe this qualifies as news. Entitled brat gets kicked off plane.
I know a guy who has a first name of Muhammad, does this mean he’ll never get to fly?
Are you SERIOUS????
You are ONE ‘blogger’ attempting too hard to gain a few more followers.
Matthew, just so you know, this won’t fling you into celebrity status across the world!
People are over it mate. No one is still thinking about you and your flight you got booted off, to Turkey.
CLEARLY, you are very inconsiderate and show NO compassion to those affected by the catastrophic events of 9/11. Shame on you for downplaying such a tragic event and then continue on by ranting about death tolls.
Terrorism SHOULD never be downplayed! No matter if was yesterday or 12 years ago! What happens when we take our foot off the pedal? “C’mon, that happened years ago, the cancer toll is higher” WTF? We’re working damn hard to cure it too!! Just like we are working damn hard to stay as safe as we can.
If I heard you say that, I would probably have reported you too.
Now, UA special passenger, I suggest you find something else to cry over because this is done and dusted!
In my honest opinion, i think United should be waiting for an apology from YOU!
Congratulations you have earned yourself celebrity status of retired Big Brother contestants.. Who?!
Stop now, or your walk of shame will only get longer and harder..
Erik, I appreciate your response and I think your being far to kind. IMO, this guy is just another miserable douche burning up with envy. He sees the confidence, professionalism, and talent in Mathew that he doesn’t, and never will have and so he tries to destroy it. A garden variety troll easily dismissed. I usually just ignore people like him but Mathew shouldn’t have to defend himself all over again. In fact, he shouldn’t have had to explain himself the FIRST time. My brother is a FO for a major carrier, I’m going to ask him to read this article and respond.
Outstanding post, Matt, I couldn’t agree more.
Do you know that the US government scans pretty much all internet data for “dangerous words”? That your property and computers can be seized without any cause if near a US border? This is the new “land of the free” we are living in.
As I’ve seen elsewhere, it isn’t about the picture taking. It isn’t about a specific word said, it is about entering into a defensive, albeit polite conversation, with the FA prior to take-off, during boarding as to why you should be able to take pictures when they told you to stop. This action, in and of itself, raises questions about whether or not you will do as you are told in the air.
Certainly the FA waaaay overreacted, but you had a hand in it too.
Hang on a second Bill,
I think you may be confusing Mathew with the other passenger also admonished for taking pictures. When the FA told him to stop taking pictures, that’s exactly what he did. He was pretty clear when he wrote that he immediately put his phone away without making a fuss. The only other conversation he had with the FA, was when he told her why he was taking pictures, that he was a blogger, that he flew United very frequently, etc, etc. He never tried to argue that he should be able to take pictures, and he never questioned the FA’s authority. That being said, there WAS another passenger that also was admonished by the same FA who DID start arguing and seemed very much to question the FA’s authority. I could be totally wrong, but is it possible that’s who your confusing Mathew with??. Also, I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence about Mathew having a hand in this whole debacle. We always have a part in our troubles. When you follow the sequence of events all the way back to the beginning, inevitably, we find we have stepped on the toes of our fellows, and they react. Doesn’t mean its right or ok to react, it just means our side of the equation isn’t an empty set. I wish more people would consider your observation before they started screaming “victim” (and I’m absolutely not implying that Mathew is screaming ANYTHING) He is right to question bad behavior. Unlike multiple trolls in these comments, he was never rude, disrespectful, or vulgar. He didn’t even express anger, which is a perfectly VALID emotion to express in a situation like this.
Bravo, Matt. Well written and perfectly accurate. Thanks for standing up for yourself and the rest of us freedom loving Americans that are just looking for a little common sense.
greek2me – “We do not live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” when we cower in fear from government apparatchiks who decide what words we can or cannot use.”
When was the USA ever free? Try asking the Native Americans about how the “Americans” stole their land, and the African slaves who built this country from the ground up.
You are on the mark about this 9/11 nonsense. Okay, so a couple of thousand people died. That’s right – a couple of thousand. Then their families became instant millionaires. I wonder if the descendants of slaves will ever receive back wages. I wonder…
I have yet to hear you Matt or anyone in comments here say that United and/or any other airline has rules about photography on planes that go beyond their rules about the use of electronics of any kind.
If that rule was buried deep in Hemisphere’s Magazine and you were kicked off for not knowing it, that’s the problem. I realize you believe you were kicked off for the discussion you had with the FA later but what brought that up was her attempted enforcement of a rule few of us know about.
The angle I’d play, if angles are to be played, is that if this is a rule, then United and other airlines need to announce it and make it absolutely clear.
I photograph on planes all the time and have continued to do so after reading your first post about this. And, I fly United exclusively (not happily anymore). No one has ever asked me to put my iPhone or camera away or stop shooting. And, I’ve aimed my camera at all sorts of stuff although I am sensitive to other passengers and FAs and always have been as someone who does street photography.
Rather than discuss freedom of speech and words you can and can’t say on a plane which brings with it variables that make it impossible to look at objectively (the context in which words are used, whether you’re having an argument with the FA, etc.) I’d focus on the photography rule that started the entire thing.
The text is in Portuguese but the pictures say it all.
As you can see, many countries are afraid of terrorists with cameras! Lol
“People are over it mate. No one is still thinking about you and your flight you got booted off, to Turkey.”
“Terrorism SHOULD never be downplayed! No matter if was yesterday or 12 years ago! What happens when we take our foot off the pedal? “C’mon, that happened years ago, the cancer toll is higher” WTF? We’re working damn hard to cure it too!! Just like we are working damn hard to stay as safe as we can.”
“In my honest opinion, i think United should be waiting for an apology from YOU!”
It is a shame that you seem to lack the capacity for critical thinking and have just fallen in line with all of the other people who spout the same nonsense. Nobody has ever averted a terrorist attack because the perpetrator gave himself away by using the “wrong word” Please educate yourself prior to offering your opinion lest you perpetuate the ignorance that is already rampant in this country.
Matt, I don’t know how some can be so nasty. It’s amazing what fear does, isn’t it? Please keep the articles coming – and I agree with another commenter about photography on aircraft, which everyone does, and Hemispheres Magazine. I’ve been flying for 20 years and haven’t seen it nor had any f/a make a comment about it.
Get off your soapbox, Matt. Your privileged first world problems don’t deserve a bunch of preachy “terrorist have won” drivel. “But I don’t regret my choice of words.”–do you regret asking the FA to “come hither and take your jacket” in front of everyone in business class? Just so you could divulge your life/blog/status to her and say the t-word you pretended to be naive about? Reminds me of the Seinfeld jerk store episode. Right or Wrong you had the camera policy enforced. Instead of waiting for the flight to get off ground and talk to her in private, you took a couple seconds and came up with “I’m not a terrorist.”
You can’t say, “Muhammad”? Really, its one of the most common names
in the world.
Good article. A little overwrought but honest and accurate.
Fire the FA. At least 1/3 of them have horrible attitudes and are atrocious – power trippers they are.
Someone could over hear someone use one or more these words and misunderstand them or take them out of context. As such it could cause an unnecessary panic or disturbance among passengers. This is why these words are banned or frowned upon. Given the context and meaning of these words it really has nothing to do with freedom of speech but more about public safety(in this case the passengers, flight attendant’s and pilot’s safety). To help put it in context remember Oliver Wendall Holmes ruling that you can’t yell fire in a public theater(unless of course there actually was one). The same thing applies here. It makes sense to me but I guess some people don’t get it.
On this 9/11, on the day during one of the darkest years of our lives, I am always reminded of this article. I think it might be the very best one you’ve ever written, and you might never write a better one, not because you haven’t gotten better, but because none could offer a more powerful message. In this year of uncertainty and dark fear, let’s remember to do our part to not only remember those we lost on 9/11, but just as importantly, remember the dark fear that our society reacted with. May we say, and mean it when we say, never again! In the meantime, I am NOT a terrorist!