This article derives from one of my dear friends. Let’s call him WCP. WCP thinks about things very deeply and with penetrating clarity, as you will see from this article. The post covers how the mainstream media declined to release certain details of the case where a Muslim high school student brought a device into school in order to inflame people’s passions. This kind of reporting is far too widespread and ingrained in news culture these days.
To make matters worse, twitter has turned charged topics like this into a race. Apparently it’s now newsworthy (or at least, worthy of being reported in a news story) to have tweeted on a hot topic – at least if you are President Obama or Mark Zuckerberg. So not only does twitter encourage a brief and incomplete depiction, it encourages opining before all the evidence is in – which works out just fine if the only evidence worth reporting is the evidence that supports the accepted conclusion. Otherwise you’d probably end up with your foot in your mouth.
At the end of this post I am including several links to news releases about the incident and supporting documentation so that you can formulate a more complete opinion, but first I would beg your indulgence to allow me to walk you through several scenarios to highlight the effects of misdirection and misinformation in this story.
The first narrative is the juicy one that most “CliffNotes” news stories will summarize:
A muslim high school freshman, Ahmed Mohamed, brings a home engineering project, a clock, to school with him to show off to his science teacher. A teacher overreacts to the homemade clock and mistakes it for a bomb. Ahmed is led off in handcuffs by the police, detained and questioned, while his clock is confiscated.
Great, I’ve mentioned race and religion, I brought in the sensationalism of the boy led off in handcuffs, and even mentioned what he was accused of doing. That’s actually more information than the NY Times or CNN offer in their opening paragraphs.
The narrative can quickly get confusing, however, when you add other relevant details:
– Ahmed is supposed to have brought the clock to school to show his engineering teacher, who “said it was nice but then told him he should not show the invention to other teachers.”
– The clock was discovered in an English class, when it beeped in Ahmed’s backpack.
– In questioning by school officials and police, Ahmed offered no elaboration but only insisted that it was a clock. At no point does he offer that the engineering teacher may have a corroborating story. The police report that Ahmed was passive aggressive in his responses.
– Police knew that the homemade clock was not a bomb, but still booked Ahmed under hoax bomb charges. After further questioning at the station in which Ahmed provided some elaboration, they released him and did not press charges.
I don’t think I am qualified to comment on whether the English teacher and school officials responded in an appropriate manner – that is highly dependent on not just the appearance of the package but its specific presentation when brought out. Regardless of the accuracy of the diagnosis, “look-alike” weapons are explicitly banned in the Student Code of Conduct.
I do, however, think that the police response can be justified. After it was determined that the package was not a bomb, it still required inquiry into motive, as Texas has laws about hoax bombs. An unresponsive teenager, whether by lack of eloquence from fright or out of deliberation, would slow this investigation. At the end of their questioning, there appears to be insufficient evidence to prove motive either way with the clock, so they are right to release him.
The school is also accused, especially in response to the principal’s letter which was released the day after, of deliberately omitting details of the event in their reports. This is a direct outcome of legal counsel, as school representatives have declined comment to reporters “citing the need to protect a student’s privacy,” promising “more details would be revealed if the family gives written permission to discuss the incident.”
Perhaps one of the most troubling details, which is absent in most articles, is what caused the beeping. In only the regional news report is this mentioned, “Police said the student had the briefcase in his English class, where he plugged it into an electrical outlet and it started to make noise.” Its omission from all other articles either indicates – incompetence in false inclusion on the part of this reporter, incompetence in omission on the the part of other reporters, or incorrect information provided by an officer (probably who wasn’t authorized to comment, given that this didn’t come out in the press conference).
This is a very important detail – if true, Ahmed should be charged for possession of a hoax bomb because there was no reason to plug it in during English class other than to cause alarm and disruption. If false, there remains the question of why it beeped, but homemade devices can sometimes be finicky and not do what you expect (he was supposed to have made it that weekend, so debugging time was limited).
There are a few inconsistencies in the comments made by Ahmed and his family which also confuse the narrative. ‘Ahmed … said he created the clock over the weekend,’ but the boy’s father commented “It was an alarm clock that he made. He wakes up with it most mornings.” Also, Ahmed reported, “I built a clock to impress my teacher but when I showed it to her, she thought it was a threat to her” – while the articles report that the engineering teacher, for whom it was intended, was not threatened; if he made this for an English teacher he was sadly misguided.
It has been argued that the clock is not an “invention” at all, but an uncased version of a commercially available clock (see YouTube link at the end). This rings very true to me as someone with a technical bent and who played with many electronics kits as a child. The absence of any homemade looking electronics in the box is telling, and the operation on outlet power (instead of a much safer 5-15V DC supply) are details that strike very true once I heard them pointed out.
Ahmed is a young boy who participated in the middle school robotics club, and had won awards for his inventions. Is it plausible that he was playing around with dissecting an alarm clock? Sure. Was he possibly oblivious to the possible misinterpretation? Absolutely, engineering types and wide-eyed kids are notorious for not thinking things through. Was this a traumatic experience that he responded to poorly – taking a while to answer the police effectively – and leading to inconsistencies in answers given to reporters? Completely believable.
Is Ahmed’s starry-eyed innocence the most logical explanation of the facts? That would depend on which version of the facts you were given. Unfortunately, all versions of the story I’ve read have an axe to grind, and aren’t interested in presenting just the facts. No one is really interested in that, and the hubbub will probably die off with no further investigation (the police aren’t pressing charges, and don’t expect anything from the journalists), leaving some questions unanswered.
If it’s just a publicity stunt, it worked well and Ahmed now can probably leverage this to go to whatever school he wants to.
Useful digital versions of the Student Code of Conduct and the principal’s letter:
YouTube video dissecting the clock: