This past week a young 9th grader in Irving, Texas was arrested for his curiosity. Ahmed Mohamed, like many teenage nerds (For the record I am also a teenage nerd, I just happen to have an additional 15 years of experience) has innate desire to understand how things work and a desire to make things they conceive in their imagination. In Ahmed’s case, he scrounged together various electronic parts to build a digital clock. A clock that not while necessarily as refined as an Apple product, was still something he was justly proud of. Like many of us geeks and nerds who seek to find friends, mentors and general acceptance; he took his clock to school with him to show his teacher. Now, much of what we have learned about what happened next comes from interviews and news articles written since most of us were not there to experience first-hand. Some reports state that the clock was a part of a homework assignment. Others state he simply built the clock to impress an engineering teacher. After showing his technology teacher the clock, which was small enough to fit in a pencil case that one finds in the dollar section of Target, he placed the clock in his backpack for the remainder of the day. Towards the end of the school day, while in English class, his clock beeped. Just as many of us in meetings or classes have had our cell phone ring because we forgot to put it into silent mode. Ahmed voluntarily showed his English teacher the clock to assure him/her what it was.
Here is where things go crazy. The English teacher looks at the clock and sees a ticking weapon of mass destruction. Apparently this adult, charged with educating our youth, could not differentiate between a bomb and a digital clock. Now, giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt that while ignorant, they were acting in the interest of the greater good to protect everyone in the school. Fine. So Ahmed was whisked away to the Principal’s office where he was met by multiple police officers. Then promptly placed in handcuffs. For building a clock. Some articles go on to state that the first police officer made a snide remark to the fact that he guessed that the student would be a Muslim. Yes, Ahmed is a Muslim. Which is totally irrelevant. Now, there are many commentaries out there about this situation. There are those who assume that it was Ahmed’s faith and ethnicity that really put him handcuffs. Supporters argue that if he were caucasian that the story would have unfolded differently. Others believe that the teachers and police were simply following rules and acting out of an abundance of caution. As with all cases that involve even the scent of racism or Islamaphobia it’s difficult, if not impossible, to really see into the hearts and minds of people. Certainly, I am not foolish enough to believe that we live in a world free from hatred. But in this specific case, there does not seem to be blatant racism at play, at least nothing reported as of today. Personally, I can see the argument of acting out of precaution up to the point that they placed Ahmed in handcuffs. In my minds eye, a scrappy little 14-year-old would have never presented a physical danger to armed cops. Also, where was the engineering teacher? The one Ahmed showed his clock to at the beginning of the school day. Certainly he/she could have corroborated Ahmed’s story. Never did Ahmed ever insinuate that the clock was a bomb or ever a hoax. He simply stood by the fact that all he built was clock.
But as I said, I cannot speak or judge the hearts and minds of the teachers, administrators, or cops involved. Whether there was racism at play we may never know for 100% certainty. While I don’t condone racism or hatred in any form, it’s not the major reason I stand with Ahmed.
I stand with Ahmed because his situation has thrown a light on what happens when an society has 0 scientific or technical literacy. Any rational adult should have looked at that clock and reasoned that if this were a bomb where is the actual explosives? Where is the part of the bomb that actually goes boom? It’s too easy to hide behind feigning ignorance of knowledge. Benjamin Franklin is often attributed as stating “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Has the land of the Free and the home of the Brave become so afraid of technology and so ignorant of scientific and rational thought that we are willing to trample the civil liberties of a child to make ourselves “feel” better. I hope not. Collectively we need to look at ourselves and ask some tough questions.
- Why have become slaves to rules setup to knee-jerk reactions? We should realize that every incident is unique. That blindly following rules vice using rational thought on a case-by-case basis is the surest path to destroying someone’s civil liberties. I pray we never live in a world where we think it is okay to extinguish even one innocent person’s rights and dignity to keep everyone else safe.
- Why are we proud of scientific, technological. and logical ignorance? The world is a complicated places. Way more so than the 1950s. And it’s only going to get more complicated. We can whine and bitch about things not being like they used to be. Or we can accept it and learn to adjust. We have a lot of challenges ahead. Global Climate Change. Cyber Threats, Driverless Vehicles. Net Neutrality. Renewable Energy. Space Exploration. These are not light subjects and we are going to have to confront these things more and more. While not everyone need be a PhD rocket scientist; people do need basic appreciation of scientific principles and rational thought. Our every survival depends on making data driven decisions and not gambling away the future based on emotional gratification of the now.
- Do really believe what we say about the importance of the Maker Movement, STEM/STEAM, and Open Source initiatives? If we do, than kids like Ahmed are going to become more of the norm. And I hope they do because it is kids like Ahmed that are going to advance our economy and our society. Here’s the cold hard truth. Learning how to write an essay in MLA format is not going to get you a job. Being able to hack, build, engineer, tinker, design is. What Ahmed is learning at home under his own initiative will get him further along in life than anything he doing in school. Shouldn’t we flip that reality? Shouldn’t we be preparing kids for competing in a global economy that values innovation and creating? Rote memorization of fact and understanding Shakespeare is nice, but should not be the primary focus of primary education. Not anymore. We are failing our kids because we are failing to let change happen.
I stand with Ahmed. I stand with him personally because if his arrest was racially motivated than I am here to say that discrimination in any form is wrong and not welcome in my United States of America. As a caucasian male, the normal WASP retort of “just being cautious” is too simple as WASPs have never felt the burden of stereotypes and bigotry. Not to the extent other minorities in this country have been accustomed to for a long time. Furthermore, saying “I didn’t know” or “Just being safe” becomes too easy of an answer for those who seek to hide their prejudice behind a veil of ignorance. We need to nip that in the butt now.
I also stand with Ahmed because his situation is a reflection of the worst aspects of ourselves. Willful ignorance, fear run rampant, rules trumping rational thought, failure to adapt education to the realities of 21st century economy; to name but a few of our sins. I stand with Ahmed because if we really want a better tomorrow than we need to start acting like it. We need to earn our future by embracing change and diversity. We need to build a basic scientific and technological vocabulary and understanding so we can react rationally to events.
But perhaps the most important reason that I stand with Ahmed is because I was and I am Ahmed.
I will leave you with this quote from Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.