On Wednesday, a 14-year old Texan student named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a device into his high school in Irving, Texas. When one of his teachers accused him of possessing a bomb, socially-liberal outrage triggers went off all over America. On Twitter, former Star Trek cast member Wil Wheaton implied that the parties involved with the arrest—assumedly the Irving Police Department and administrators at Macarthur High School—are “bigoted idiots,” while New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait called the story a “moral outrage.” President Obama went as far as to invite Mohamed to the White House and to express appreciation for his scientific precocity.
This type of reaction operates in an environment of unwarranted simplicity assigned to these types of incidents by would-be pundits on social media, and in this case, more traditional media sources and public figures. Assumptions are made: obviously nobody should be under penalty for expressing scientific curiosity through invention, and obviously the Texan authorities were operating strictly in a mode of racial profiling when Mohamed was arrested, right?
I can’t help but notice, however, that the morality and significance of this incident are a lot more complex than the reactions nearly all media have allowed. Such cut and dry sermonizing on racial profiling and scientific inquiry is simply not warranted, especially not in the single-faceted light in which it was cast. Isn’t this the same liberal America that, after each in a series of tragically, seemingly inevitable school shootings, attempts to start a “national conversation” on, and exact meaningful change with regard to, the presence and availability of firearms in American society? Doesn’t that type of reaction encourage schools to develop and implement zero-tolerance policies for any, even superficially possible threat? Should we really be ostracizing teachers and administrators for taking what they deemed to be something suspicious seriously? The morality here rests on a very fine line, in fact a much finer one than the public outcry on Wednesday and Thursday seems to suggest. The assumptions being made by the media and respected public figures are, in short, problematic.
It’s distinctly possible that Mohamed was at some, or at all points in this whole debacle, racially profiled. That’s an issue, obviously. A perception that I am somehow racist myself, or excluding that topic out of convenience, would be misconstrued. I’m not denying its existence or significance, nor do I think racial profiling was not at play here, but I do think it’s appropriate to temporarily set it aside in order to more clearly discuss the questions I think are important, but which have mostly been ignored.
One such question is tricky, and somewhat related to the topic above: what if a white student had been the “culprit” of bringing a clock to school, and had it mistaken for a makeshift or hoax bomb? This is important because much of the commentary about this issue thus far has worked under the assumption that a student not of Mohamed’s background would have not been treated with such harshness. This is an impossible assumption to make. This impossibility is very difficult to accept if you assume that racial profiling is the key issue here. I emphasize again that I am operating under the proposition that it is not. It is also important to remember that the item in question here was a small, metal pencil box, the kind with an aluminum outside, and a jumble of wires and a primitive motherboard-looking object attached to a small LED screen inside. A zero tolerance policy would have to regard this item as suspect, regardless of the ethnicity of the student.
And what if, God forbid, the object in question had actually been a bomb, and school authorities had done nothing? What kind of discussion would we be having in that case?
This prompts my final point: what does this communicate to other schools? That zero tolerance policies and carefulness about the superficially suspect are fundamentally racist and bad? Doesn’t that potentially take us to a place where the safety of our schools is at least hypothetically compromised if administrators and police are afraid of this kind of public backlash to enactment of safety policies? It only takes one small slip to enable a fully preventable tragedy to occur.
By failing to discuss these questions and ignoring certain facets of this issue, we allow our “national conversations” to take us a step backwards. Is the promotion of one kid’s scientific enterprise worth that kind of cost?