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The poisonous paranoia of ‘see something, say something’

The best way to help kids like Ahmed Mohamed is to reject the suspicious mindset that has gripped Americans since 9/11

September 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

Fourteen years after 9/11, the United States remains in an artificially sustained state of emergency best encapsulated by the oft-repeated Orwellian catchphrase “If you see something, say something.” This ubiquitous edict and its variants still appear in transportation hubs and public buildings across the country, nudging us to never take anything at face value, treating every perceived oddity and fleeting discomfort as a potential threat.

It was this poisonous mentality that was at work Monday, when school administrators in Irving, Texas, had a Muslim teenager arrested for bringing a homemade digital clock to school after a teacher said it looked like a bomb. Ahmed Mohamed, a talented 14-year-old with a well-known aptitude for electronic tinkering, told The Dallas Morning News that he built the clock in 20 minutes the previous night to impress his engineering instructor. By 3 p.m., Ahmed was suspended from school and being escorted out of McArthur High School in handcuffs.

The Dallas paper reported that police “may yet charge him with making a hoax bomb” and had an “ongoing investigation” into the device, despite being clearly and repeatedly shown that it is, in fact, a clock. But this easily verifiable fact hardly mattered. The school immediately called the police. Upon first meeting Ahmed, the paper reported, one of the officers exclaimed, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was,” making Ahmed feel “suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name.”

On Twitter, the absurd story was rightly seized upon as an ugly confluence of tech illiteracy, overpolicing and deeply entrenched Islamophobia. The case quickly drew outrage and support from the tech world and beyond as the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed began trending. The influential blogger Anil Dash started circulating an online form allowing people to send their good wishes to Ahmed’s family, while others called for the police officers and school administrators involved to be fired. On Wednesday, the police chief announced that charges won’t be filed and Ahmed received his invitation to the White House. But his school maintained the suspension until Thursday.

Ahmed’s treatment is neither anomalous nor surprising. It’s merely a symptom of the same bigotry and irrational paranoia the U.S. government’s never-ending war on terror is responsible for helping to incubate — the negative effects of which are routinely and overwhelmingly felt by Muslims and people of color.

Particularly revealing of this mentality was a shocking letter about the incident that McArthur High principal Daniel Cummings sent to school parents. Rather than explain the situation and apologize to Ahmed’s family, the letter depicts the violation of his civil rights as “a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe,” even while acknowledging “the item discovered did not pose a threat to your child’s safety.”

An environment built on nebulous and irrational fear is one in which nothing can be taken for what it is — whether it’s a forgotten backpack or a teenage kid building a clock.

This unwavering devotion to “If You See Something, Say Something” is perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the whole affair. Faced with a case in which this very mentality victimized a young boy based on his name and the color of his skin, Cummings’ first reaction was to further reinforce that thinking by instructing kids to dutifully view others with the same baseless suspicion.

The letter’s backwards logic parallels the senseless continuation of various “See Something, Say Something” programs. Unsurprisingly, having untrained citizens report suspicious activity based solely on caprice is a completely ineffective security strategy: The vast majority of tips received by agencies such as New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority report completely innocuous activities — for example, Muslim men counting prayers on the train using a common electronic tally device. There is no evidence that the reports have ever helped to thwart a terrorist plot.

The actions of the U.S. government continually reinforce these kinds of unfounded suspicions. Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, for example, were told to view people who wear a common brand of Casio watch as terrorists with links to Al Qaeda. The FBI has a long and continuing history of entrapping young, vulnerable and mentally ill Muslim men with fabricated terror plots — likely because Americans have a much higher chance of being killed by falling furniture or police officers than by terrorists.

Tips from nervous observers are frequently the catalyst of violent and deadly police encounters. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a black man sitting on a bench waiting to pick up his son from school was tased and violently arrested by police after calmly and legally refusing to show his ID; the police arrived because a nearby shopkeeper had made a 911 call reporting his behavior as “suspicious.” The cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, last year was similarly responding to a tip from a concerned citizen, who saw Rice holding a BB gun. The officer fired at Rice two seconds after arriving at the scene, even though the 911 caller had expressed doubts and said the gun was “probably fake.”

With open invitations from Facebook, Twitter and other Silicon Valley tech giants, Ahmed will likely emerge from his ordeal relatively unscathed. But it would be foolish to think others like him will be so lucky.

It’s time for Americans, especially white Americans, to recognize the dangerous consequences that “See Something, Saying Something” can have, especially for people of color. An environment built on nebulous and irrational fear is one in which nothing can be taken for what it is, where there is always something nefarious lurking behind every perceived abnormality, discomfort or disruption in the flow of day-to-day life — whether it’s a forgotten backpack or a teenage kid building a clock.

The only safe world for future Ahmeds is one in which we end this culture of suspicion by rejecting government fearmongering and refusing to be terrorized.

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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