News of the Tautological

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on September 21, 2015

News of the Tautological

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

News of the Tautological
“Why Are So Many Rent-Regulated Apartments Cheaper Than They Should Be?”–headline, Gothamist, Sept. 17

Two Papers in One!

  • “Iraq already possesses biological and chemical weapons, and [Saddam] Hussein would probably not hesitate to use them in a desperate effort to prevent the dissolution of his regime. Potential targets could include American troops in the field, Israeli cities and Saudi and Kuwaiti oil export sites.”—editorial, New York Times, Aug. 11, 2002
  • “Jeb Bush spun a particularly repellent fantasy. Speaking reverently of his brother the [former] president, he said, ‘He kept us safe,’ and invoked the carnage of 9/11. Wait, what? Did he mean George W. Bush, who was warned about the threat that Al Qaeda would attack? Who then invaded a non sequitur country, Iraq, over a nonexistent threat?”—editorial, New York Times, Sept. 18, 2015

Stand With Ahmed
It’s been an unusual week for Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high-school freshman from suburban Dallas who aspires to be an engineer. On Monday, as the Dallas Morning News reports, he brought to school a digital clock he’d built himself:

He showed it to his engineering teacher first thing Monday morning and didn’t get quite the reaction he’d hoped for.

“He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’ ” Ahmed said. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’”

He kept the clock inside his school bag in English class, but the teacher complained when the alarm beeped in the middle of a lesson. Ahmed brought his invention up to show her afterward.

“She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.

“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’ ”

The teacher kept the clock. When the principal and a police officer pulled Ahmed out of sixth period, he suspected he wouldn’t get it back.

They led Ahmed into a room where four other police officers waited. He said an officer he’d never seen before leaned back in his chair and remarked: “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.”

The cops interrogated him, handcuffed him, took him to a juvenile jail, fingerprinted him, and released him to his parents’ custody. The school suspended him for three days. Dan Cummings, the principal of MacArthur High, issued a statement to parents that “said Irving police had ‘responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus’ and had determined that ‘the item . . . did not pose a threat to your child’s safety.’ ”

By Wednesday, Ahmed was famous. The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed trended on Twitter, and the young man received invitations to visit the headquarters of Google, Facebook and the executive branch of the U.S. government. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” tweeted Barack Obama. “Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

Well, good for Ahmed. The teachers at MacArthur High and the Irving police certainly deserve criticism for overreaction and heavy-handedness. But the story has also been put into the service of a pernicious myth about “Islamophobia.” From the Morning News article:

“He just wants to invent good things for mankind,” said Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, who immigrated from Sudan and occasionally returns there to run for president. “But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.”

Mohamed is familiar with anti-Islamic politics. He once made national headlines for debating a Florida pastor who burned a Quran.

In reality, many Americans’ sons (and some daughters as well) have been similarly mistreated. New Jersey’s Jason Anagnos was only 9 when this happened to him:

Jason’s trouble with the law began on March 29, when his gifted-and-talented class at East Hanover Central School took a field trip to a museum. He had assembled the “Swanton bomb”—it was, in his description, roughly three inches square—as a gag the previous night, using leftovers from the family’s Chinese dinner. During the trip he showed it to his friend Lucas.

“So you could like squish it and it would explode?” Jason quotes Lucas as asking.

“Yeah, I guess,” replied Jason.

Jason’s teacher was not amused. She took him aside and scolded him, saying he might scare somebody. She confiscated the “bomb,” and that was that—or so it seemed. Jason had no idea he was in any trouble.

Until the next morning, that is, when Jason was called out of music class and summoned to Principal Lawrence Mendelowitz’s office. Waiting for him were not only his parents and Mr. Mendelowitz, but a policeman, who interrogated the boy about the Swanton bomb.

Jason was suspended for a week, ordered to see a psychiatrist, and criminally charged for making a “false public alarm.” He was sentenced to a year’s probation after prosecutors warned his father that the penalty would be more severe if he were convicted in a trial.

That story made national news after Jason’s father contacted a journalist—namely your humble columnist, who wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal. There was no media frenzy and no White House invitation—but then, the president would soon find himself with a lot on his plate. Our story appeared Aug. 27, 2001.

We heard from Mr. Anagnos after a May 2001 piece of ours appeared in the Journal about “ ‘zero tolerance,’ the lunatic policy under which schools across America are suspending, expelling and even jailing kids for the most trivial of offenses, all in the name of preventing another Columbine,” the Colorado high school that was the site of a 1999 mass shooting.

That story cited more than half a dozen examples: a 16-year-old girl suspended for 45 days for possessing a tiny penknife; a 9-year-old boy suspended for drawing a picture of a soldier; an 11-year-old fifth-grader hauled out of class in handcuffs for drawing pictures of weapons; a 16-year-old girl suspended for 10 days for compiling a list of classmates who “frustrated” her; a 9-year-old charged with felony aggravated assault for allegedly pointing a toy gun at a second-grade classmate; two 8-year-olds charged with “making terrorist threats” after playing cops-and-robbers with “paper guns”; an 8-year-old suspended for pointing a chicken finger at a teacher and saying, “Pow, pow, pow.”

All of these things happened before 9/11, and as best we recall, there wasn’t a Mohamed in there anywhere.

And even these just scratched the surface. As an online accompaniment to our May 2001 piece, we prepared an archive of this column’s “Zero-Tolerance Watch” feature, in not one, not two, not three but four parts.

Our Zero-Tolerance Watch feature mostly fell into disuse in subsequent years, but that was because our interests changed, not because the problem diminished. As Vox’s Libby Nelson noted this past February, “zero-tolerance policies have been widely criticized when schools have interpreted ‘weapon’ very broadly, expelling students for making guns with their fingers or chewing a Pop-Tart into a gun shape or bringing a camping fork for Cub Scouts to class.”

But there was Vox on Wednesday peddling the Islamophobia narrative. Zach Beauchamp wrote: “It’s hard to see this as anything but blatant, naked Islamophobia: Police surely would not have hauled off a white kid because of a clock.” (Talk about ignorant stereotypes: Beauchamp thinks no Muslims are white.)

Max Fisher wrote for Vox: “The letter [from the MacArthur principal] also asks students to “immediately report any suspicious items and / or suspicious behavior,” in effect asking students and parents help to perpetuate the school’s practice of racist profiling, even after that profiling had been clearly demonstrated as without merit.”

Amanda Taub wrote for vox: “Ahmed Mohamed’s school and community . . . showed him that his passion and creativity are to be feared rather than embraced—that such things are not for young Muslim boys who share a surname with the Prophet Mohammed.” (Taub also wrote a January piece claiming that political correctness doesn’t exist. To paraphrase Carly Fiorina, fish are unaware of the existence of water.)

Slate’s Laura Moser managed to find a similar story involving a non-Muslim student, Kiera Wilmot, who was 16 when she was arrested two years ago over a science project in which “she mixed toilet-bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle” to make smoke. She was suspended for 10 days, threatened with expulsion, and charged with two felonies—though the charges were dropped “after great public outcry.”

In the course of reporting the story, Moser managed to convince Wilmot that she was the victim of racism:

I spoke with Wilmot—now 19 and a sophomore at Florida Polytechnic University majoring in mechanical engineering—this morning about Mohamed’s predicament. She said that her first reaction was anger: “I honestly thought, ‘How could this happen to somebody else?’ ”

Islamophobia has been cited as a (or the) factor in Mohamed’s arrest; did race play a role in Wilmot’s? When asked if she thought she would’ve received the same treatment if she’d been white, Wilmot said, “I’m not sure.” And then, after a judicious pause, “No, probably not.”

You can see bias at work here—Moser’s bias. If she were reporting on a case in which the victim of such administrative tyranny was white, would it even occur to her to ask if it was racially motivated? It didn’t occur to us when we interviewed Jason Anagnos and his father.

BoingBoing .net reported Wednesday that “Omar Ghabra won Twitter” by posting photos of Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with the quip: “An Arab-looking man of Syrian descent in a garage w/his accomplice building what appears to be a bomb. Arrest them.”

Vanity Fair’s Emily Fox notes that one of the Apple co-founders was indeed arrested when he was in high school—but not the one who was of Syrian descent. She quotes this passage about Wozniak from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

In twelfth grade he built an electric metronome—one of those devices that keep time in music class—and realized it sounded like a bomb. So he took the labels off some of the big batteries, taped them together, and put it in a school locker; he rigged it to start ticking faster when the locker opened. Later that day he got called to the principal’s office. He thought it was because he had won, yet again, the school’s top math prize. Instead he was confronted by the police. The principal had been summoned when the device was found, bravely ran onto the football field clutching it to his chest, and pulled the wires off. Woz tried and failed to suppress his laughter. He actually got sent to the juvenile detention center, where he spent the night. It was a memorable experience. He taught the other prisoners how to disconnect the wires leading to the ceiling fans and connect them to the bars so people got shocked when touching them.

That would have been in the late 1960s, long before zero tolerance; and given Wozniak’s admittedly mischievous intent, one hesitates to fault the principal’s reaction. Still, if Ghabra won Twitter, he should give it back and apologize for his invidious stereotyping.

Reading between the lines of the Ahmed Mohamed story, it sounds as though the young man’s father had connections among Muslim activists and knew which buttons to push to call national attention to the case. One can hardly fault him for doing so, for what happened to Ahmed was a genuine outrage even apart from the dubious claims of “Islamophobia” or racism. But is it too much to ask that journalists report the facts and refrain from spinning baseless narratives?

For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”