American lives are controlled by the thuggishly mediocre. The best measure of their control is this: when called out on their mediocre thuggery, they can comfortably double down.
Ahmed Mohamed, a bright and curious ninth-grader in Irving, Texas, learned that to his regret this week.
Ahmed made a clock. He likes to make thing and repair things and tinker with things, apparently. Last weekend he built a digital clock out of a circuit board and a power display and a digital display. There is, I suppose, a chance that I could do that without electrocuting myself, but I wouldn't bet on it.
In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile. Ahmed lives in a world where children's lives are limited by the stupid, ineffectual fear of the petty and the ignorant. He lives in a world where school administrators strip-search thirteen-year-old girls to look for ibuprofin and suspend eight-year-olds for making pretend finger-guns while playing cops and robbers. He lives in a world where police arrest seven-year-olds for bringing a nerf gun to class and perp-walk twelve-year-olds in front of their peers for writing "I love my friends" on a desk with a marker.
In that world, Ahmed's clever clock didn't earn him admiration. It earned him a trip to the principal's office, a contemptuous and skeptical interrogation by an officer of the Irving Police Department, a suspension, and a trip in handcuffs to a juvenile detention center — because a circuit board with a time display must be a bomb, or at least intended to look like a bomb.
Actually nobody thought the clock was a bomb. The school didn't think it was a bomb. The police admitted they never thought it was a bomb. The police admitted Ahmed never suggested it was a bomb, or that he meant for anyone to think it was anything but a clock. But grown-ups detained, interrogated, arrested, and handcuffed Ahmed because they couldn't conceive of why a kid would build his own clock:
“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?”
Did the putative adults pestering Ahmed do it because his name is Ahmed Mohamed and he's brown? Maybe. “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” said one officer mysteriously upon seeing him. But on the other hand, this is the era of zero tolerance and of institutionalized paranoia and of petty little people using fear to hold on to power. This is what our kids' lives are like, and we've decided to accept it. Schools are safer now than before, but we've decided to feed on the fear the media feeds us and accept that they are more dangerous, justifying harsher treatment of kids. Kids are safer than ever, but we've consented to being constantly terrified about various menaces to them. Cops are safer, but we've decided to accept their narrative that they are the targets of an unprecedented war, and hand them the power they say they need.
My mother was a school administrator, and there are many decent and concerned school administrators. But to be blunt, school administrators were generally not the kid who built his or her own clock at 14. (Cops were generally the kid who beat up the kid who built the clock.) There are two ways for school administrators to deal with the unfamiliar, the unknown, the different: they can try to learn about it, and even nurture it, or they can react to it with fear and suspicion. We've told school administrators and police "we choose fear, and we want you to choose fear too."
I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students.
In other words, faced with a freakish overreaction by the school, and the suspension and detention of a student for building a clock that nobody ever thought was dangerous, the school's response is to remind students that some items are prohibited (even though nobody says the clock was), and to exhort students to report "suspicious" items and behavior. In response to a public saying "you're paranoid," the school's response is "you're goddamn right I am, and you should be too."
When I was a kid, schools and cops generally didn't do anything about bullying. Now they profess to be very concerned about it, and there are elaborate programs in place that purport to combat it. But educators and cops either don't grasp, or don't care, that their culture of fear encourages bullying. Detaining and humiliating a geeky kid who built a clock, and following up with a self-justifying "if you see something, say something" warning, sends an unmistakable message: different is suspicious. That's a bully's attitude, too.
We're expected to give cops and administrators the benefit of the doubt. I don't: I think they are like any other human beings. There are some good and some bad. Some care, and some are doing what they do to increase their own power. But even the well-intentioned who participate in a culture of fear are blameworthy. To them, I say this: you say you're trying to protect our children. But instead you've devoted your career to making the world a worse place for them.
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