Grad student Guha banned from flight because of T-shirt

Guha made headlines recently tweeting Aetna CEO about cancer treatment.


Fernando Alfonso III


Published Aug 22, 2012   Updated Jun 2, 2021, 12:25 pm CDT

The T-shirt features a bird holding a water bottle and pair of shoes with the phrase “BOMBS ZOMG ZOMG TERRISTS” written above it.

The shirt, called Threat Level:Doctorow, was designed by Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow and sold in Sept. 2007 on where users were half-jokingly instructed to wear the shirt to “reassure your fellow citizens with a message of anxiety and suspicion.” Specifically, the description told users not to wear it to “an airport security checkpoint, or anywhere near a secure federal installation.”

Regarding the whole airport thing, Doctorow apparently wasn’t kidding.

While trying to board a flight home at the Buffalo-Niagara Airport Saturday, Arizona State University sustainability graduate student Arijit Guha, 30, and his wife were submitted to questioning by the TSA and a Delta supervisor because of the shirt.

“The Delta supervisor then told me I would be able to board the plane, but only after acquiescing to an additional security check of my and my wife’s belongings and changing my shirt,” Guha wrote on his blog. “Despite what I saw as my right to wear a shirt that expresses my feelings about our Kabuki Security Theater, and a fairly ridiculous over-response to the matter (I had, after all, worn the same shirt at least the last five times I’d flown without any incident whatsoever), I agreed to the stipulations set forth by the Delta supervisor.”

Finally they got through security, but that wasn’t the end of it. As they began to board the flight, Guha and his wife were stopped again, only this time by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority transit police and three TSA agents who told the couple they needed to ask more questions and perform additional screening. They were also told that the Delta pilot refused to let them on the plane, “regardless of the outcome of the multiple TSA screenings.”

Their bags were searched, his shirt was photographed, drug sniffing dogs were brought in, and they were asked about how often they traveled to western New York. The police also called him “foreign” and used the fact that Guha opted out of the body scanner as evidence of suspicious behavior, he wrote.

“Had he asked me, this is what he would’ve learned: I’ve been undergoing treatment for stage IV colon cancer since February 2011. In addition to having little tolerance for unnecessary and ineffective security procedures like the body scanner, I’m also not particularly fond of exposing my boy to additional avoidable sources or radiation and, more importantly, any scan would guarantee that I receive a follow-up full-body pat-down. Why? Because I have both an implanted port through which I receive my chemotherapy infusion and, having lost nearly a foot of my sigmoid colon, I have a colostomy. A bag that full of some sort of foreign matter strapped to the abdomen of a passenger would raise eyebrows among those analyzing the image of me walking through a scanner.”

Guha made national news three weeks ago when he started tweeting about how his health insurance was not going to cover his cancer treatments. The messages eventually caught the attention of Aetna CEO Mark T. Bertolini who promised to cover all the bills in full.

Guha and his wife ultimately missed their plane.

The couple was rebooked on a flight the next morning. Now wearing a different shirt—one with “Keep Calm and Poop Strong” on the front—Guha and his wife arrived back at the airport Sunday morning where life didn’t get much easier.

“While my wife was assigned a seat when we checked in, I was instead simply given a piece of paper saying I was ‘confirmed’ in lieu of an actual boarding pass. And being ‘confirmed’ didn’t actually mean would necessarily ever be getting on that plane,” he wrote. “With the flight oversold, my only hope was that eight passengers would accept Delta’s offer of a voucher and take a later flight. Luckily, Delta convinced enough people to take the voucher, so I wasn’t involuntarily re-booked yet again.”

Guha has since filed complaints with Delta, its CEO, and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Transit Police. He’s also chronicled his tale on Storify where his story has collected more than 8,000 views.

“Certainly one can go too far, but my shirt was most definitely not threatening. It didn’t, for instance, read: ‘I Will Bomb This Plane.’ There’s a clear difference between mocking the charade that is our security process and its fear of dark-skinned men and shoes and liquids, and making an actual threat,” Guha wrote. “But the larger question remains: why’d this happen? Clearly, the problem originates with the paranoid minds of my fellow passengers who misconstrued a shirt mocking the overwrought security process as a terrorist threat. … Once again, to quote myself from a tweet I posted: ‘Last night’s lesson: mock the security charade or offend racists by being brown and @Delta won’t let you fly.’”

Photo via woot

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*First Published: Aug 22, 2012, 11:05 am CDT