There is non-definitive but nonetheless troubling evidence that the fracas in Irving, Texas surrounding Ahmed Mohamed is, in some way, a hoax—a hoax of some strange and seriously premeditated and oddly successful variety. I don’t mean to imply that the school’s and the police force’s reactions were somehow faked by the Mohamed family—plainly nobody could pull that off, and in any event both the school and the police have affirmed their role in the arrest and mini-interrogation of Ahmed. You can’t manufacture that stuff. But there is troubling evidence to suggest that something is not quite right here.
I fully admit that this was not my first reaction. Many school officials, particularly public school officials, are notorious for overreacting to harmless and unremarkable behavior: one schoolkid got in trouble a while ago because he bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. When I first heard about Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest and suspension, I thought, “Yeah, that sounds like something that would happen.” But as the controversy exploded into insane proportions, and Ahmed became a worldwide celebrity with attention from industry leaders, top colleges and even the President of the United States, I started to look a little more closely at some of the reports. Some things do not add up. There are uneasy implications here. Probably they are perfectly explainable. But they are nevertheless, at the time of this writing, unexplained.
The most confusing and inexplicable revelation of the last week is this: there is incredibly compelling evidence to suggest that Ahmed Mohamed did not, in fact, “invent” a clock: he just took apart a clock and put it into a pencil case. This is, in and of itself, not very remarkable; it’s not self-evidently insidious or malicious or anything. But it doesn’t jibe with what we’ve been told about Ahmed: the entire controversy was predicated on the fact that he was a super-creative kid who builds things, tinkers with them, figures stuff out. He’s supposed to be something of a whiz kid with this stuff, which is why the story has pulled at so many heartstrings: here we have a little geek who just wanted to show off his invention to his high school teachers, but instead he gets arrested. Yet it turns out he didn’t have an invention; he just had a boring old clock, which he stripped of its casing and plopped into another box.
Again, this isn’t anything to write home about: lots of kids mess with stuff and take part old electronics to see how they work. So what? Maybe it’s nothing. But it’s nonetheless rather odd: why would a clever, creative young man think such a jackleg and extremely simple machine would “impress” his teacher at school? We have all taken that explanation at face value: that Ahmed wanted to “impress” his teacher. I suppose that’s entirely possible, and even probable—I can remember wanting to impress my teachers too (and failing at it most of the time)—but showing off a re-assembled clock in a pencil case is an odd way to impress anyone, let alone people who don’t really know you all that well (Ahmed was a newly-minted ninth grader and thus couldn’t have known his teachers much at all; if he did know them well, they’d have probably not called the police on him, right?).
So, to recap: Ahmed Mohamed claimed to have built a clock, but he didn’t really build a clock; and he took it to school for a strange, rather inexplicable reason, in order to “impress” people who probably didn’t know him and weren’t likely to be impressed by an unremarkable clock-in-a-box. What gives?
There is also a fairly significant discrepancy to be found in the narrative, one that might be easy to miss the first time around. From the first report of Ahmed’s arrest, we learn that the boy threw the clock together “in about 20 minutes before bedtime on Sunday;” he subsequently took it to school the following Monday morning, at which point it was confiscated from him; he thus had the clock in his possession for around twelve hours, give or take. Elsewhere, however, his father claimed that Ahmed “wakes up with [the alarm clock] most mornings.” This simply cannot be true: Ahmed allegedly only had the alarm clock for one morning. Perhaps the explanation is that Ahmed used to wake up with the original alarm clock before he disassembled it and put it in the pencil case, and his father was simply not speaking clearly. Pretty satisfactory explanation, right? Not so fast: on MSNBC with Chris Hayes, Ahmed claimed to have [pursuant to Hayes’s question] “bought [the clock’s] parts and put it together in [his] room.” These stories do not jibe.
I reached out to the Mohamed family last week to ask about how the clock was built; I received no response. Based on the information we have, then, there are three claims regarding the construction of the clock that do not mesh: (1) Ahmed claimed he tossed the clock together in a hurry Sunday night, (2) his father claimed he used the clock regularly before it was confiscated, and (3) Ahmed claimed he purchased the parts for the clock elsewhere before building it.
There is also one more thing that jumps out at me: when Ahmed showed the clock to one teacher, he was told by that teacher that he should not show it to anyone else (the teacher apparently thought it looked suspicious). One assumes he intended to follow that order and keep quiet about the clock for the rest of the day—but the clock’s alarm beeped in the middle of his English class, annoying another teacher and leading Ahmed to show her the clock after class in order to explain himself (this teacher subsequently reported him, which led to his arrest). So the alarm went off and the teacher heard it. That’s a suitable pretext for showing her the clock, but it’s also—when you stop to think about it—really quite odd: why, after all, was the alarm ringing in the middle of the class? Did he program it to ring while he was in the classroom? If so, why? Again—I cannot emphasize this enough—there might be and probably is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the alarm went off. But I’ve searched for such an explanation, and I can’t find it; all the reports I’ve read just claim the alarm “went off.” But alarm clocks don’t just go off: they are programmed to go off (clocks generally don’t just arbitrarily ring on their own; otherwise they’d wake people up all night long). Has anyone asked Ahmed why the clock was programmed to ring during his English class? Is it possible that the intention was for the alarm to ring—and for the clock to be discovered? It’s not probable, but is it possible?
There may be reasonable answers for all of these troubling questions. If the media get around to asking them, they could and probably would be resolved within three minutes, and we could get back to focusing on what I think was the perfectly ridiculous way in which Ahmed was treated. There’s no need to arrest a ninth-grader for a clock in a pencil case, even if it looks like a bomb (and honestly, Ahmed’s clock did kind of look like a bomb): barring any malicious intent, you just tell the kid not to bring the damn thing to school, and that’s that. There is no doubt that the official response was overreactive. But the most troubling and disquieting thing is this: was the official response provoked? There is slim but nonetheless distressing evidence that that was indeed the intent. Probably it’s not the case. But the media needs to do its job and ask these questions to the people who can answer them.