As people around the world 'like', 'share' or 'hashtag' #IstandwithAhmed in solidarity, there are important questions that need to be asked by both governments and citizens. There is no doubt that the ordeal suffered by a 14-year-old budding inventor is outrageous and it is commendable that the White House, MIT, Facebook and others have reached out to assure Ahmed that America is not just about institutional prejudice and racism. However, beyond condemning the reprehensible treatment of a child and the joining the wave of support that Ahmed has found, his experience can be used to try and understand how people, especially young people, who are subjected to some form of institutional discrimination cope with the experience.
No matter how many scholarships, internships and free trips are offered to young Ahmed, the fact is that the few hours he spent in police custody were traumatic. He bluntly stated that he felt like he was being treated as a criminal not a human. Despite all our technological sophistication and medical advancements one of the least understood things is the way in which our brain copes and reacts to trauma. Then of course there is the matter of individual trauma and social trauma. It is easy for those who do not suffer trauma to dismiss it as something which is the result of weakness, or feeble mindedness or indeed something which is entirely made up and not real. However the fact is that being subjected to psychological or indeed physical trauma, for both often go together, has negative short-term and long-term ramifications.
"Will he always, consciously or unconsciously, be frightened of the police? Will he be able to adjust back to school life? "
Let us look at the facts, as they exist. Ahmed wanted to impress teachers so he built a digital alarm clock (although there is some speculation that the 'invention' may simply have been a disassembled old clock). He took it to school but was told that it was nice but he should put it away. Another teacher then called the principal because she felt threatened by the clock whereupon five police officers arrested and handcuffed 14-year-old Ahmed, took him to juvenile detention, fingerprinted him and then interrogated him. Upon finding that he did not intend to threaten anyone with the 'device' - apparently the term alarm clock is not in the police's vocabulary - the police decided they would not file criminal charges. In the meantime, the school suspended Ahmed for a few days while maintaining that the teacher who had sounded the alarm was right and that the school fully supported her. After this they said Ahmed was welcome to attend school again.
During his ordeal, Ahmed was wearing a T-Shirt with the logo of one of America's most advanced government institutions, NASA, possibly as a statement of where he aspired to be one day. However, two other government institutions, the public school and the police, not only questioned and undermined these aspirations but also through their actions made it clear that his skin colour and religion were more important in their perception than anything else. Imagine if the young White Taylor Wilson who built a nuclear fusion reactor at home was more swarthy looking and his name was Mohammad Ali.
If a child were to undergo the humiliation that Ahmed was subjected to, he or she would certainly be mentally affected by the fact that his teachers whom he was trying to impress, suspected him. Then the police treated him like a common criminal. Let's forget the fact that due process would require calling in a bomb squad if there was the threat of any explosive device. Here it must be underscored again that Ahmed himself felt like he was being treated as a criminal. Therefore we have to ask the question as to how Ahmed might react to his ordeal.
"Teachers are trusted to nurture and the police are trusted to impartially protect, at least in democratic countries."
Will he always, consciously or unconsciously, be frightened of the police? Will he be able to adjust back to school life? Will he trust his teachers, the very people in whom the fate of future generations is entrusted and to whom children often look up to? Will he now hide his interests because every time he builds something he will wonder if it might get him into trouble? Will he have nightmares or will his health be affected? Will he withdraw and slowly cut himself off from the world? Will he be drawn to anti-establishment political or religious groups because of a sense of persecution?
The questions are endless and have to be asked not just for Ahmed, who with all the support he has got might very well come out of this trauma with minimal scarring, but for all the Ahmeds that we do not know about. All the Ahmeds not just in America but around the world who are innocent victims of institutional and individual prejudice. Clearly this young 14 year old has been scarred by the treatment at the hands of two institutions whose existence is based on trust. Teachers are trusted to nurture and the police are trusted to impartially protect, at least in democratic countries. For a moment zoom out of Irving, Texas. For that matter zoom out of the UK, where in a move Kafka might have trouble dreaming up, a 3 year old was placed in a government anti-extremism program, and then zoom into a war-torn country of your choice. Now ask the very same questions about the generations of young children who suffer unimaginable traumas as a result of these conflicts and then ask yourself whether we can predict what effect this trauma will have on their lives.