Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard this story about 14-year-old Texas boy Ahmed Mohamed who built a homemade clock to impress his teacher.  She was impressed, all right— and had him handcuffed and arrested for bringing a bomb to school, even though the device was clearly not a bomb, but, indeed, a homemade clock.

Upon learning of his arrest, President Obama was duly impressed, and sent Ahmed an invitation to show off his invention at the White House.  After all, that’s clearly what this country’s youth needs— a reinvigorated interest in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.  The United States is woefully behind other industrialized nations in those areas of education.

You would think that the Texas officials making the arrest would be shamefaced, and apologize profusely for the error.  You could think that.  But you would be wrong:

On Wednesday, an Irving independent school district spokeswoman, Lesley Weaver, defended the school’s decision to arrest Ahmed under Texas’s “hoax bomb” statute after an English teacher reported the “suspicious” device to administrators.

“We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students and to keep our school community as safe as possible,” Weaver said.

Weaver also said members of the public appeared upset because they hadn’t seen photos of the “suspicious-looking item in question”.

“Perhaps upon release of that photo there may be a little bit different perception about what took place, and people might have a better understanding of how we were doing everything with an abundance of caution to protect all of our students in Irving,” Weaver said.

While it may seem reasonable to take precautions because the device looked suspicious, clearly there is a double standard as to when precautions are taken.  Consider this story about a white 14-year-old kid who built— get this— a nuclear reactor and got help from the Department of Homeland Security to do it.

What makes Ahmed Mohamed’s homemade clock suspicious while Taylor Wilson’s nuclear reactor— let that one sink in— gets a clean bill of health from all involved?

The answer is obvious.  You know it and I know it.

It’s because the Sudanese-American kid is named Ahmed Mohamed and he’s a Muslim.

I’ll give you a personal anecdote that underscores the double standard.  I once helped get something that looked an awful lot like a real bona fide Grade-A bomb through an airport.  I was the composer of an anti-Iraq-War political satire musical called Yeehad! and one of the props in our show was a simulated strap-on bomb.  Our show was selected for the Edinburgh Fringe, so we had to fly our prop bomb out to Scotland on an international flight.  We fully cooperated with all the authorities, we explained our situation thoroughly, we showed them our prop, we were inspected and given the green light to take our fake bomb to the United Kingdom.

But the thing is, I’m white.  And our director was white.  And our playwright was white.  (Indeed, I now make it a point to try to work with people of a greater diversity of backgrounds than I did then.)  Nobody involved with getting our phony bomb on this plane was named anything like Ahmed Mohamed.

Can you imagine if even one of us was brown-skinned and had a Muslim-sounding name?  Do you think for a second we would have been allowed to get our prop bomb on that plane?

Now, bear in mind, the story at issue today has nothing to do with airplanes.  It has nothing to do with politics, foreign or domestic.  It has nothing to do with anything except that a science kid wanted to show off his invention and impress his teacher, a teacher who saw this kid through the lens of her own Islamophobia and made trouble for him.  And, by the way, poor, poor marks for this teacher who could not tell a homemade clock from a bomb.  Obviously this teacher should be taking the class and Ahmed Mohamed should be teaching it.

The kid, of course, will come out ahead in this— he gets a trip to the White House, after all, and will get to meet the president himself.  How cool is that?  But the point is that this should never have happened to begin with.  This happened in my adopted home state of Texas, and I must say, I have never been prouder (#sarcasm).  And, of course, it goes without saying that this kid has a bright future.

A bright future, that is, unless racism and religious prejudice get in the way.  And it very well might.  And the fine mind of this inventive 14-year-old lad will go completely to waste.  And, as the old College Fund slogan tells us, and mind truly is a terrible thing to waste.

What time is it?

It’s time to end all this prejudice.  Now.

-Robert Gross

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