Bomb!

The recent controversy over the 14-year-old Muslim teenager who built a clock and brought it to school only to be arrested and charged with making a “hoax bomb” has brought to light a troubling aspect of our modern culture.  It is an aspect of the culture that particularly hits home for me, and it’s not Islamophobia or racial profiling.  I am a white male, and therefore not subject to negative racial profiling.  I am not religious either, and though there are people who fear and/or despise atheists, we don’t have to deal with the ignorant mobs with pitchforks mentality that people in the Islamic community face.  So, while this incident does indeed illustrate the Islamophobia and racial profiling in our culture, that’s not the part that hit home for me.

The part that hit me was…  This was a nerdy 14-year-old kid who is into electronics.  I was a nerdy 14-year-old kid who was into electronics.  I was made fun of, called a “nerd” when the word actually hurt, had my books dumped by bullies and my head kicked into my locker.  Back when I was Ahmed’s age, the vast majority of people didn’t own or use personal computers at home.  Most people had a VCR, but didn’t know how to program it.  The Internet wasn’t open to the public.  My parents had a single land-line telephone for the whole house because we didn’t have cellular phones.  Being ignorant about basic technology to the point where a bundle of wires is scary maybe would have some sense back then, but today we live in a highly technical world.  Electronics, circuits, sensors, all the stuff that makes our computerized world function, have become so ubiquitous that it seems only the most ignorant and clueless person would mistake a clock (even a home-made one with visible wires) for an explosive device.  I certainly wouldn’t expect that level of technical ignorance from a professional educator or law enforcement officer.

It seems likely that some people have feared technology for as long as there has been technology.  I’m sure that whoever chipped the first hand axe faced at least one person who lost their shit over this strange, alien artifact:

Ook: Ook make choppy cutter from stone!  Look!  Help cut things!

Thrag: Ook make bomb!  Ook make bomb!

But I keep reading allegedly intelligent people saying things like, “well, better safe than sorry, it DID look like a bomb after all” and other people arguing about the racial profiling angle, but rarely is anybody saying the painfully obvious thing, namely, NO.  It did not look like a bomb.

I’ll say it again.  It did not resemble a bomb.  Not in the least.

But, you may say, there were wires!

Might I remind you that wires do not explode.  They are inert.

But there was a numeric digital display!  Like a countdown timer!  On a bomb!

Also like the timer in your microwave, or the display on your alarm clock.  Again, numeric displays do not explode.  They are inert.

But, there was a circuit board!  It looked sinister!

Again, not explodey.  Circuit boards are everywhere.  There is one in the machine you are using to read this.

No, it didn’t look like a bomb, it looked like some sort of home-made timing device (aka: a clock), built by a nerdy 14-year-old kid who is learning electronics.  Nerdy 14-year-old kids who are learning electronics have been building similar things for decades.  They don’t look like bombs, they look like clocks.

I’ll tell you what would have made it look like a bomb…  Something attached to the timer that would be capable of exploding.  If Ahmed had painted some toilet paper tubes red to look like TNT and run some wires into them, that would have looked like a bomb.  If he had taken a grey brick of modeling clay and made it look like a clump of C4, that would have looked like a bomb.

See, in order for a device to look like a bomb, it inherently needs to appear capable of exploding.  Only a completely tech ignorant person would look at wires, circuits, and LCD screens and think “bomb”.

I’ll tell you what else looks like a bomb, because it is one.  A glass bottle filled with gasoline with a rag stuck in the end.  No wires.  No circuits.  Very explodey.

Now, I’m not saying that a kid walks in with a bundle of wires and you do nothing.  One would presume that a) his teachers were aware of him, b) they probably knew he was a science nerd type kid, c) they should have been curious enough to look at his device.  If they had seen something that appeared to be potentially dangerous, wires leading into something other than a numeric display perhaps, then they might have been justified in worrying.  But 10 seconds of examination from somebody with even the tiniest bit of common sense would have kept this story from ever making the news.

But no.  We now live in a world based almost entirely on electronics in which people feel that being entirely ignorant of the subject is perfectly defensible and persecuting teenage kids who have more intelligence and curiousity than they do is also perfectly justifiable behavior.

If you are scared of what’s inside your computer, or you see mysterious wires in the hands of a brown person and crap your pants, you are living in the wrong century, my friend.  If you think the rational and appropriate response is for the rest of us to react in fear and loathing because you can’t be bothered to learn something, well, too bad.  The genie is out of the bottle.  Maker culture exists.  Technology is in the hands of the next generation whether they are named Jimmy or Muhammed, and if you don’t want to be a paranoid ignoramus, you just might have to learn to tell the difference between a bomb and a clock.  This goes double if you work in a position of authority.  Your ignorance is your problem.  Stop making it a problem for everybody else.