It would be comic were it not so frightening.
Yesterday (15 September 2015), The Dallas Morning News published a story about Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old student in Irving, Texas, who was arrested when be brought a home-brew electronic gadget to MacArthur High School.
Ahmed said it was a clock and showed it to one of his teachers, but another teacher thought it looked suspicious and reported it to the school administration. Next thing, Ahmed was taken from class by the school principal and a police officer and taken to a room where he was interrogated by five officers about his electronic project, which the adults decided was a “hoax bomb.” Ahmed, wearing a NASA T-shirt no less, was handcuffed and brought to a juvenile-detention center.
The Dallas Morning News quoted police spokesperson James McLellan. “We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.” How about this one: It was a clock.
A handout photo of an item that was brought to school by MacArthur High School student Ahmed Mohamed. Charges against him were dropped after an investigation determined that the item, which resembled a clock, was actually an, um, clock.Photo: Ashley Landis/Dallas Morning News/Corbis
Seems that nobody has informed the Irving police department or public school system that many young people like to tinker with electronics. There was a time when that was lauded. Now, though, if you live in Irving and can solder you’re considered suspicious, particularly if you have brown skin and are a Muslim.
At a press conference today, Irving police Chief Larry Boyd announced no charges would be filed against Ahmed, confirming that his homebrew contraption was not a bomb and referring to what The Dallas Morning News quotes Boyd as calling “a naïve accident.”
Boyd’s words rang rather hollow, though, as social media simultaneously exploded with support for Ahmed and scorn for school administrators and police officers who can’t distinguish a cobbled-together clock from a dangerous explosive.
President Obama 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.”
Hillary Clinton tweeted her support as well with, “Assumptions and fear don’t keep us safe—they hold us back. Ahmed, stay curious and keep building.”
On Twitter, Ahmed received offers of membership in a nearby hackerspace and invitations to visit JPL, MIT, and Science Friday, among the outpouring of support from the world’s technical and scientific community.
Irving police stress that Islamophobia had nothing to do with Ahmed’s arrest. Perhaps so, but whether this episode reflects prejudice or stupidity, it speaks very poorly of the school administrators and police officers involved. Let’s just hope that Ahmed receives a scholarship to another high school where the adults are more enlightened—and more interested in nurturing fledgling engineers.
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His beat focuses on computing, and he contributes frequently to Spectrum's Hands On column. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from Yale, a master's in engineering from UC Berkeley, and a doctorate in geology from Columbia.