Fearing fear itself

Published 11:23 am Saturday, September 19, 2015

by Peter Funt

Two sad and lingering results of 9/11 are prejudice and paranoia.

We are showered by public service announcements and airport advisories telling us to “report suspicious activity.” We look askance at everyone and everything — especially people whose skin color, clothing and accents are unlike our own. Too often we conflate “suspicious” with “different.”

How awful that America, land of the free and home of the brave, is in many ways neither. Which brings us to the slender, bespectacled 14-year-old student, who was interrogated by five police officers at his school in Irving, Texas, and then taken away in handcuffs.

He had the misfortune to have suspiciously dark skin and the suspicious-sounding name of Ahmed Mohamed. More unfortunate was his choice of a suspicious-looking science project: a harmless homemade clock.

Ahmed’s father told the Dallas Morning News that his son’s treatment is a clear case of Islamophobia. It is that, and more.

It is a reflection of the broader cowardice that grips many Americans and produces an us-versus-them mentality. It’s why Donald Trump gets such hearty applause when he talks about building walls at our border.

But in this one small case at least, the shameful behavior of those who run

MacArthur High School in Irving is backfiring. Ahmed is the new face of those who are fed up with rampant prejudice. It didn’t take long for #IStandWithAhmed to trigger an outpouring of support.

NASA scientists have offered Ahmed a visit to their labs. One MIT professor posted that he’s the kind of student she dreams of having. Mark Zuckerberg tweeted, “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest.” Ahmed was given an open invitation to visit Facebook headquarters.

Understandably, the shock of seeing planes flying into the World Trade Center and the horror of watching the classroom carnage in Newtown, Connecticut — and so many other recent frights ­— have changed us. How could they not? Schools especially are under enormous pressure to be vigilant in protecting students.

But we simply can’t give in to our suspicions when common sense tells us otherwise. We can’t allow those few who would genuinely do us harm to achieve their highest goal: To have us live in fear.

When I walk through an airport I don’t want other passengers deciding whether the package I’m carrying is suspicious. And I imagine if my skin were darker and my name different I’d want it even less.

I want the cops to protect me, but I don’t want to be profiled. And I imagine if I drove a different car or lived in a different neighborhood I’d want it even less.

I expect teachers and school administrators to take whatever prudent steps are necessary to keep kids safe. And I imagine if my son’s name sounded different and his appearance placed him in the minority I’d want it even more.

Following his ordeal, Ahmed Mohamed got a tweet that read: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

So, young Ahmed will be visiting President Obama and over the next few weeks is likely to become instantly famous.

We should remember, however, that he’s not so much a hero as a victim. And the villains are not those we fear but those of us who have become overly fearful.

PETER FUNT is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. © 2015 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.