The Clock Did Not Explode

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

A 14-year-old American teenager, whether in Dallas, New York or Minneapolis, can focus on sports or can choose to be a nerd. But almost all American kids work hard in school to make it to college, putting themselves in a slightly better position to get a job when they graduate at 22. They become depressed if they can’t find work or don’t get accepted to graduate school, feeling that all their hard studies didn’t provide them with sufficient tools to compete in the real world. Some of them just let go – they drop out of the system, maybe even start using drugs. Or at worst, the really frustrated kids, having grown up in a gun-friendly society, might – in moment of frustration – grab a family-owned weapon and go on a rampage.

Ahmed Mohamed did nothing of the sort. He made a clock. At 14, he built a digital clock and was proud of it. So, not far into his first year of high school, excited and wanting to impress, he just showed his invention to his engineering teacher. He thought that this was a person he could trust, and that school was a place where his talent would be recognized. But his trusted teacher did not want to discuss Ahmed’s project. He likely did not wholly comprehend boy’s talent – he told the boy to put it away and hush. Better not to show his clock to the other teachers. And though Ahmed obeyed, during his English lesson, the clock’s alarm went off. The English teacher inquired about the noise and Ahmed showed her his invention after class.

”It looks like a bomb,” she said, and took the clock away. During sixth period, the principal of the school and a police officer pulled the 14-year-old out of class. Somebody – was it the English teacher? – must have called the police. He was taken to another room, where he found four other officers waiting.

As Avi Selk first reported for the Dallas Morning News:

Ahmed felt suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name — one of the most common in the Muslim religion. But the police kept him busy with questions.

The bell rang at least twice, he said, while the officers searched his belongings and questioned his intentions. The principal threatened to expel him if he didn’t make a written statement, he said.

“They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’” Ahmed said.

“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”

“He said, ‘It looks like a movie bomb to me.’”

Later on, a police spokesman, James McLellan, told the Dallas Morning News that while Ahmed never said the device he built was anything but a clock, officers suspected he wasn’t telling them the whole story.  

“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car,” he said. “The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

They did. Irving Independent School District Chief Larry Boyd said during a press conference that Ahmed was handcuffed “for his safety and for the safety of the officers,” and then was led out of school with his hands cuffed behind him. He was sent to a juvenile detention center where he was fingerprinted and then reunited with his parents. The principal suspended him for three days, though it is still unclear for what infraction.

While Ahmed was free to go home with his parents within a few hours of the arrest, the clock stayed with the police department for another day. Of course, the tick-tock clock never exploded, and outrage over Ahmed’s arrest echoed across America within 24 hours. Luckily, the narrow-minded principal and policemen, with their hunting instinct, were cut short by social media. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and more came down on them like a massive storm after local media coverage of the incident went on viral.

Public outrage was so strong that even President Obama took note and took sides. “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great,” the president tweeted last Wednesday. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and corporations like Google and Twitter all proffered invites to young Ahmed. Overnight he became a hero for angry Americans, who were proud of the kid who turned his bedroom into a lab and who could one day become the next Tesla. But without that flood of tweets and other social media warnings, the police would most likely still be sniffing through the wires, microchips and half-made inventions in Ahmed’s room while the high school freshman was kept in detention. Forced to retreat, neither school authorities nor the police even ever apologized to Ahmed.

Ahmed’s case will no doubt revive a decade-old discussion about the role of social media in a modern society. Enthusiasm about the power of Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary tools for the rebellious masses wound down after the failure of the Iran Green Movement and the Arab Spring a couple of years later. It became obvious that social media is not inherently free and independent, but can be manipulated by regimes to consolidate their power. However, the process always runs in both directions. So recently there have been more cases where netizens exercised a certain level of control over societal events. Such was the case in China when dangerous chemical products exploded in Tianjin, as we described in our post three weeks ago. Such is Ahmed’s case, which might have attracted little attention if not for the outbreak – a veritable explosion – of internet-savvy Americans.

The outrage against the nonsensical, over-the-top repression of a talented teenager in Irving was originally an outcry against racism and Islamophobia. Ahmed, who will go to meet the President in the White House, who will choose a new school, who has been offered many scholarships, is of African descent. He is Muslim. His father is from Sudan. There are strong indications that the principal and police in Texas reacted as they did because Ahmed is dark-skinned and has a Muslim name, and therefore was considered a potential terrorist.

But the problem, in my mind, goes even deeper than that.It begins with the police mentality that pervades the U.S. post-9/11. That mentality has even pervaded its school.

Ten years ago, I met an American kid who was persecuted and punished for much smaller “sins” at school. He was only 9 at the time. And it was in New York, at an expensive and supposedly progressive school.

This young man had lived abroad for most of his life so, when this 9-year-old went to an American school for the first time in 2003, he must have been simultaneously nervous, curious and happy to be surrounded by other kids from New York. He wanted to share the excitement, he wanted to learn. He wanted to touch.

His approach was not well accepted in this new society. And while it is common for 9-year-olds to compete between each other, there might also be some loud arguing. And a bit of pushing. But it’s all part of the learning process. Or so one would think. Not in American schools post-9/11. The boy’s parents were summoned to the school one day and told that their son was a problem. Badly behaved. Disturbing. Getting in verbal disputes with a classmate.

“So what!?” was my first reaction. Well, this is what: though there were no direct witnesses, nor any injuries, the 9-year-old’s teacher decided to punish him. Instead of using his didactic skills of persuasion, the teacher punished his student without rational advice or explanation. They isolated him during recess. When changing classes, he had to walk a few paces behind the group. The parents tried to reason with the principal, but she supported the teacher, who seemed to have absolute power over their kid. The school, if I remember right, added the warning that if there was another incident, their son would be suspended or even expelled. The school abandoned didactics and exchanged them for pure repression and punishment at the first small incident, and with no discussion. I could not believe my ears when I heard this story: that for such a small thing, any kid could be punished so severely? Even in the most repressive regimes I’ve experienced in my life – in China, for instance – kids mature in a protected, almost privileged environment. Considering that the child’s teacher hadn’t even allowed for a discussion, this very prestigious downtown Manhattan elementary school seemed to be modeling itself on Guantanamo. An exaggeration of course, but I have no doubt that this expensive private school confused the education of young pupils into socially interactive and adept individuals with repression that could only produce an obedient but socially handicapped person.

I’m glad to report that the 9-year-old boy is now a smiling and smart young man, having survived the dictatorship of that supposedly progressive school with the help of parents. I remember that on the last day of his “prison,” before his parents managed to transfer him to another, much tougher school, he showed them the secret places where he hid during recess in order to avoid further provocations.

As much as one may think that Ahmed’s  arrest and this boy’s isolation cannot be compared, I am convinced that these two stories are connected. While they are different in scale, they both move in the same direction. And they are both a consequence of a post-9/11 society that renounces open-mindedness for reactive and paranoid repression at so many levels. The dangers presented in the case of Irving High School are somehow easier to understand, since it is very obvious where the educational system failed: instead of talking to Ahmed, the teacher decided to call the police. Sure, the police, too, could have used better judgment, and should have realized that they were facing a very talented student, and not a terrorist. But as we know, law enforcement is not an intellectual activity, at least not in the way it is practiced now. The teachers in both stories acted like unthinking policemen, and if you ask me, I would have fired them both if I could..  

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