Inventors are tinkerers. They build things without obvious utility, they take things apart and put them back together, they make things just to see if it’s possible to make them, and they show off their latest creations to the people around them. All of the most impressive things in our world—computers, smart phones, television, telephones—are the result of people who liked to mess around with things.
Ahmed Mohamed might turn out to be a great inventor, or he might not. It’s hard to say, because he’s only fourteen years old. But he did build himself a simple, homemade electronic clock that fit inside of his pencil case, consisting of a circuit board with wires that led to a digital display. And he promptly found himself in handcuffs for it.
Not only did his school call the police because they thought that his clock looked like a bomb—despite the fact that, according to everyone involved, Ahmed made very clear to everyone that he showed his creation to that it was a clock—but even after the police got involved, and any confusion that school officials might have experienced was cleared up, he was still suspended for three days. For building a clock and bringing it to school.
As the Dallas Morning News reports, police—who even after Ahmed’s device was proven to be a clock without any dangerous elements whatsoever—told the paper they were still considering charging him with making a “hoax bomb,” and seemed exceedingly suspicious of the boy’s motives.
Ahmed never claimed his device was anything but a clock, said police spokesman James McLellan. And police have no reason to think it was dangerous. But officers still didn’t believe Ahmed was giving them the whole story.
“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.”
Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:
“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”
Indeed, if Ahmed had left his clock in a bathroom or under a car, and there had been some demonstrable intent that he intended to frighten people into thinking it was a bomb, those would be questions worth asking. But the clock, by Ahmed’s account and the account of the engineering teacher he showed it to, was built for the same reason inventors all over the world have built many things—just to do it.
The Morning News reported that Ahmed’s engineering teacher was impressed with his ingenuity—but also told him to keep the creation from the other teachers. When it beeped in his bag during English class, the teacher insisted that it “looks like a bomb.” By sixth period, the boy was in custody.
It’s hard to talk about the situation without addressing the way that Irving and many other North Texas suburbs have cast Muslims. Mayor Beth Van Duyne was dubbed the #IrvingIronLady—a reference to Margaret Thatcher—after she spoke out in favor of HB 562, a bill that would have prevented the application of “foreign laws” in Texas. That move was widely considered a response to the voluntary Islamic tribunal in Irving that mediates civil disputes between members of the Muslim community if all parties agree.
Irving shares the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex with Garland, where a “Draw Muhammad” contest in May became the scene of violence after shooters from out of state attacked the event (both were killed). It’s part of the same region as Dallas, where in March an Iraqi man was murdered outside of his apartment complex while photographing snow. It’s not too far from Farmersville, where residents threatened to pour pig’s blood on a proposed Muslim cemetery this summer. And none of this is new. In 2011, in neighboring Arlington, the playground at a local mosque was burned as part of a hate crime.
That context is an important part Ahmed’s story. North Texas is a microcosm of a problem that extends across Texas and the U.S.—that Muslims are frequently subject to threats, violence, and humiliation.
Authorities in North Texas have yet to apologize to Ahmed, his family, or the broader community. At a press conference on Wednesday morning, Irving ISD officials declined to take questions, while an Irving PD spokesman explained that this is “an age where you can’t take things like that to school” and justified handcuffing the boy by claiming they had to do it to ensure that he didn’t jump out of the police car. (He did clarify that the department wouldn’t be pursuing hoax charges against Ahmed.)
According to the Dallas Morning News, Ahmed vowed “never to take an invention to school again” after the incident—which is a real failure on the part of the educational system responsible for helping develop the talents and skills of this young man. Fortunately, others have taken an interest in Ahmed’s creative mind: Engineers at Google have invited him to see its Los Angeles facility, and NASA asked him to come check out the Mars rovers.
Ultimately, though, Ahmed’s case raises the very real questions about who we are and what we value. We idolize the American inventors who have kept this country relevant and important around the world. We’re a few weeks away from a movie lionizing Steve Jobs, and the national obsession with Elon Musk and his space program/cars/whatever-he-comes-up-with-next continues unabated. We wring our hands that we don’t have the engineers and creative thinkers coming up in this country to compete with those who are developing in other parts of the world. And yet a deep fear of children with names like Ahmed Mohamad means that when the creative thinkers among us don’t look like Musk or Jobs, they’re more likely to be punished for their inventions than celebrated.
That’s shameful. And until we can all recognize everyone among us as the bold, creative, American minds of the future, we’re at risk of losing much of what makes us great.