If there were a story tailor-made for the current political moment, it is the story of Ahmed Mohamed. Mohamed is the Irving, Tex., high school freshman whose homemade clock was inexplicably mistaken for a bomb by a teacher at his school.
That is an admittedly generous use of the word "inexplicably." Mohamed is the son of an immigrant from Sudan. His father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, told the Dallas Morning News that his son "just wants to invent good things for mankind. But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated."
That's not an unreasonable assumption. The incident occurred only a few days after the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. And as the Morning News makes obvious with the "related" stories that accompany its article that the city leadership in Irving, Tex., was criticized earlier this year for a law that some perceived as unfairly targeting Muslims.
Then there's the "bomb" itself, which Ahmed Mohamed says a police officer told him "looks like a movie bomb to me" — because, presumably, it had a circuit board and some wires. The differentiating factor for a bomb vs. another electronic device, incidentally, is that it includes some sort of explosive. It's akin to the now-funny incident in 2007 when a dumb Cartoon Network joke prompted a call to the bomb squad. At least that "bomb" had to be checked out before it was obviously not a bomb; in this case, the device was a small box that one can probably safely assume contained nothing even remotely explosive-like.
In a letter to parents, the district defended its actions. "[W]e want you to be aware that the Irving Police Department responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus yesterday," the letter read — its use of "the police responded" doing a neat job of pushing the blame elsewhere. "We are pleased to report that after the police department’s assessment, the item discovered at school did not pose a threat to your child’s safety." (Except in the sense that it was a clock, which measures time, and time will finish us all in the end.)
So we have: Possible xenophobia in the form of Mohamed being considered a bombmaker, technophobia in the form of a simple device being mistaken as something threatening, and a good example of a government agency behaving in a way that raises legitimate questions.
If only there were an opportunity for prominent politicians to weigh in on and debate controversial issues coming up!
If the moderators of the second Republican debate are still looking for questions to ask the party’s presidential candidates, this is fertile soil. Yes, it’s one incident, but it can serve as a jumping-off point for a lot of issues. Is this an example of good local governance? Are Americans too quick to be suspicious of Muslims or those whom they perceive as Muslim? Do immigrants face an unfriendly American society? Are American educators able to prepare students for the technology-rich American workplace? And so on. Make up your own! It's easy.
#IStandWithAhmed was trending on Twitter across the world on Wednesday morning — only about 12 hours after the story originally broke. That's precisely because it sits at a powerful nexus in American politics: diversity, modernity, immigration, education.
All of which distracts from perhaps the most moving part of the story. A kid — a freshman starting at a new school — brought something neat that he'd made to class in order to impress his teachers. Outside all of the other context, that's touching and deeply relatable. The kid was wearing a NASA T-shirt when he was put in handcuffs on Monday — a geeky kid who does geeky stuff, trying to start the school year off right.
I expect they will have more to say tomorrow, but Ahmed's sister asked me to share this photo. A NASA shirt! pic.twitter.com/nR4gt992gB
— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 16, 2015
Update: As if to reinforce the moment's political significance, both the sitting president and the leading Democratic presidential candidate have now spoken out about Mohamed on Twitter.
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.
— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015