He kept the clock inside his school bag in English class, but the teacher complained when the alarm beeped in the middle of a lesson. Ahmed brought his invention up to show her afterward.
“She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.
“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’”
The teacher kept the clock. When the principal and a police officer pulled Ahmed out of sixth period, he suspected he wouldn’t get it back.
They led Ahmed into a room where four other police officers waited. He said an officer he’d never seen before leaned back in his chair and remarked: “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.”
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.’”
The story ends with Ahmed in handcuffs — in his NASA t-shirt. He faces a three-day suspension and a police report describes his invention as a “hoax bomb,” although he never said his invention was anything but a clock.
Yup, everything about this story is awful.
We want more kids to be interested in STEM. We want more builders of clocks and inventors and tinkerers and enthusiasts. And then one kid is so interested that he builds a clock and brings it to school, and — they mistake it for a bomb and arrest him. Frankly, it would be less embarrassing if they’d accused him of sorcery. There are no hateful stereotypes about people named Ahmed being wizards.
It wasn’t just that they mistook his clock for a bomb. School administrators have been idiots before. Remember the pop-tart “gun”?
It was that they just assumed he was someone who would make bombs, not clocks.
What’s so heartbreaking is the “yup. That’s who I thought it was.” That gets you where you live. They didn’t see Ahmed at all. They saw a frightening shadow, not a fourteen year-old kid.
Everything about this story is awful.
You can make some tepid jokes about clocks and bombs, just to cheer yourself up a little. “If they can’t tell a clock from a bomb, maybe they’ll think this copy of ‘Gigli’ is a thoughtful housewarming gift!”
You can picture those cops waking up in the morning as their alarms go off and screaming in terror and shouting “WHICH WIRE DO I CUT? WHICH WIRE?”
You can picture the English teacher tearing “The 13 Clocks” and “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Secret Of The Old Clock” off the shelves on the grounds that they are bomb-making manuals.
But you don’t feel much better. This is the extreme example, the story you wish was a parody.
So instead we are trying as hard as we can to change the ending to the story. On Wednesday, Irving Police Chief Larry Body announced that Ahmed will not be charged. “We have no evidence to support that there was an intention to create alarm or cause people to be concerned,” he said.
If only they’d noticed that earlier.
The whole Internet today lit up with support. #IStandWithAhmed trended, hugely, and remains number-one as I write this. So did #HelpAhmedMake.
President Obama (@POTUS) tweeted “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.” (Ah, America, where your clock gets you arrested and invited to the White House.)
Maybe we still have a chance for this to end well.
There is a quote, I think from Mark Twain, that I can never find in situations like this (if you have it, email me, please!) that says, roughly, that the one saving grace of Americans is that when we realize we have done something awful to you, no one is ever sorrier, and no one will ever embrace you so readily, and you never saw anyone try as hard to make it up to you as we will.
I hope we can.