Ahmed’s Clock and the Trumping of Common Sense by Ideology


by John Ellis

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has an exhibit focused on the US Postal Inspection Service titled “Behind the Badge.” The overall exhibit is interesting and informative, and contains letters from Ted Kaczynski, one of the anthrax letters from 2001, and a collection of items, sent through the mail, that had been fashioned to hold illegal substances. For my kids, the highlight of the exhibit is a game, of sorts, that asks visitors to make a decision about pieces of mail – is it harmless or is there enough of a reason to be concerned to justify contacting the authorities? The game speaks to one of the overall themes of the “Behind the Badge” exhibit; the need to be informed, wary, and proactive in a world with many hidden potential dangers.

Granted, there is a point where we can allow irrational fears to trump common sense. After October 2001 and the anthrax letters, a co-worker of mine began checking his mail while wearing a hazmat suit. He would open all the envelopes and extract each piece of mail with tweezers before taking the envelopes’ contents inside his house. Any mail that he didn’t recognize, he would throw away without opening[1]. This was a guy who could’ve been a character in the Mel Gibson movie Conspiracy Theory; and who allowed the rational concerns and fears of the day to feed his paranoia, which, in turn, had an adverse effect on his day to day life.

On the other side of the coin, though, it’s also not wise, in our post-9/11, post-Boston Marathon bombing world, to live with our heads in the sand and ignore possible threats. And that’s one of the lessons to be learned while visiting the “Behind the Badge” exhibit. There is evil in the world, it’s foolish to pretend otherwise, and ignoring warning signs is irresponsible, especially for those who are specifically tasked with the care and safety of others[2]. This is why, in regards to Ahmed Mohamed and his clock, the embracement of due diligence’s sacrifice on the altar of political correctness is, to be honest, scary.

It’s hard to deny that that clock looks like a bomb. If “Behind the Badge” included it as one of the packages in the game, I wouldn’t have to think twice about choosing “contact the authorities.” That doesn’t mean that I would claim that I know for certain that it’s a bomb, but, especially considering the tragic events that have been piling up over the last two decades, it’s definitely suspicious looking enough to not only warrant but demand that the authorities be notified. Not to mention that it happened in a school.

According to the local news reports, Ahmed was detained because the police, the people we as a society have tasked with protecting us, were having a hard time determining exactly what the clock was and why Ahmed had brought it to school. They were having a hard time because, according to the police reports, Ahmed was uncooperative and wouldn’t provide details about what it was, why he had built it, and why he had brought it to school[3].

I realize that many people no longer consider it kosher to speak out in favor of the police, but considering that it’s becoming increasingly obvious that ideology takes precedent over things like consistency and common sense[4], from everything that I can determine, jumping to the claims of “Islamophobia” is an incredibly unfair charge to make of the police and school authorities. The media reports of the event, from the very beginning, were freighted with emotional bi-lines intended to shape the reader’s response in ways that play into rhetorical agendas that have more to do with ideology than truth. I first learned of the event from the headline, “14 Year Old Boy Arrested for Making a Clock!” Well, that’s not true. That’s not why the school authorities and police took action. The truth didn’t matter, though, because pretty much every news article that I read cast the school authorities and police as ignorant racists and Ahmed as a victim of Islamophobic persecution.

Could the situation have been handled better? Probably, but these types of things can almost always be handled better. When people have to act decisively on limited information, and, make no mistake, they needed to act, mistakes are usually made. And, no, those mistakes shouldn’t be excused. But, considering how emotionally and politically charged the rhetoric around this event has become, there is a real danger that whatever corrections come out of this will be an overreach. It’s not helpful for anyone to frontload teachers and the police with the thought that if they say something, if they take action, they will be branded as a racist. Once again, it needs to be kept in mind that the clock did, indeed, look suspicious.

From what I can tell, and based solely on the events, those involved are no more racists than Ahmed Mohamed is a terrorist. If Ahmed is owed an apology, and, on one level or another, he probably is, he deserves that apology. If the authority figures involved need more training to enable them to be better equipped in dealing with these types of scary and fluid situations, they should be given that training. What doesn’t need to happen is for a kid to be placed on the pedestal of false-persecution propped up on the chastised and ostracized backs of those whose job it is to keep children safe. If someone showed up at my daughter’s school with that clock, I desperately hope that the school errs on the side of caution. I’m afraid, however, that in the instance of an actual threat, common sense and appropriate caution will be trumped by the desire to not end up labeled a racist on CNN. 

[1] Apparently, his concern didn’t extend to the trash collectors. Although, I guess it’s unfair to expect that level of paranoid irrationality to think through his actions to the logical end.

[2] We are all our “brother’s keeper,” but some people have that in their job description.

[3] He’s a kid. I get that. And, to be honest, I give him a pass because of that. When I was his age, and this applies to most of my childhood friends, too, I would’ve relished the opportunity to poke a stick in the investigative wheels of my authority figures. I’m not saying that that’s what he was doing; I’m just saying that being uncooperative doesn’t indicate malicious intent.

[4] One example – I didn’t hear boo from any of my environmentalist friends about the EPA’s recent destruction of the Animus River in Colorado. However, I’d bet lots of money that if BP had destroyed the Animus River, those same friends would have swung into full-on slacktivism mode.


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