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Cahn: When science is mistaken for terrorism

Posted: September 17, 2015 4:41 p.m.
Updated: September 18, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Ahmed Mohammed.

Sounds like the name of an ISIS leader, doesn’t it? A name to be afraid of, a name to evoke the same terror as Osama bin Laden, right?

But Ahmed Mohammed is 14 years old, lives in Irving, Texas, and loves to make his own radios and repair go-karts. He also creates homemade clocks, which is what got Ahmed lumped in with a bunch of terrorists.

According to various reports, Ahmed had lots of fun being a part of his middle school robotics club. Entering high school for the first time this year, the 14-year-old decided to take something to school to impress teachers.

An engineering teacher congratulated him, but told him not to show it off to anyone else. The clock -- which in photos looks more like circuit boards and wires to a non-engineering person like me -- beeped during English class.

A teacher there apparently thought it looked and sounded like a bomb, or at least a “hoax bomb.” A few hours later, officials pulled Ahmed out of class, interviewed and then had him arrested by no fewer than four police officers.

As the BBC reported, those officers handcuffed and fingerprinted him and then released him after determining there was no real threat.

Ahmed and his family are Muslim. That doesn’t make them terrorists. It just makes them Muslims living in America -- no different than Christians and Jews living in America.

Ahmed’s father and some Muslim leaders believe the school and law enforcement treated his son the way they did because he’s Muslim.

And Mic (like microphone), a “millennial-focused” news website, points out Ahmed is not the only student of color to be handcuffed for their scientific endeavors.

One example: Kiera Wilmot. At the age of 16 in 2003, she found herself arrested and recommended for expulsion when an experiment involving aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner exploded during her biology class.

Ahmed’s case is heading toward legendary status because of the way school officials handled even the aftermath of his arrest.

His principal sent out a letter to parents which, while it said there was never a threat, urged parents to go back over the school’s code of conduct with their children so they would know what not to bring to school, and to remind students to report anything suspicious anytime.

But, according to The Verge,  which posted a copy of the letter and the school’s policies, clocks -- of any kind -- aren’t on the list of proscribed objects.

In other words, as other media outlets, including Vox, pointed out, the letter blamed Ahmed (not by name, of course) instead of acknowledging their own overreaction.

Vox’s Ezra Klein noted Ahmed’s arrest comes at a time when America is trying to prove to the Muslim world we aren’t the enemy. Racially profiling children, Klein said, gives “ammunition to those who argue that America is deeply hostile to Muslims.”

He also pointed out we, as a country, need to be encouraging, not arresting, children interested in science.

“America was supposed to be better than this,” Klein wrote in response to a picture of Ahmed in handcuffs.

He’s absolutely right.

Luckily, many Americans know science from terror and recognize the need to support excitement in science like Ahmed’s.

Two of those Americans are President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Both referred to Ahmed’s clock as “cool” and invited him to the White House and FB’s headquarters respectively. Google and NASA did the same.

We’ve often run stories about the robotics clubs here in Kershaw County. Let’s not ever get into a situation where we have to suppress these students’ excitement for science. We need more of them, not fewer, to show us the way to the future.

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