Thursday, September 17, 2015

Muslims, Clocks, and America's Strange Penal Rituals

By now you're aware of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old who made a clock and got arrested for fabricating a bomb. He also happens to be Muslim, which…oh, I was going to make some joke about how his arrest was just coincidence, but it's not even funny anymore. The kid was arrested because he's brown and has an Arabic name (after all, as many have pointed out, if they thought it actually was a bomb, why did they keep it around? Why did they not evacuate the building?). Here's a standard Glenn Greenwald withering take on how this is just one small example of the fruits of a decade-plus of anti-Islam fear mongering.

The whole story is insane in that special American way, but what stands out to me is that both the school and police, in their attempts to defend their blatantly prejudicial behavior, have cited the fact that Ahmed would not provide further explanation beyond explaining it was a clock. Of course, to a rational, sane person, that would be because it's impossible to add further explanation. It's a clock, it does clock stuff. Unless they were expecting him to detail a theory of the linear progression of time, there's not a whole lot of context to add to the concept of "a clock."

Despite the legal concept of "innocent until proven guilty," there's widespread belief among many actors in our criminal justice system that if you get arrested you are guilty of something. It may not be the particular charges you're facing, but it's a common attitude amongst police and prosecutors that if you end up in the back of a squad car, you're definitely deserving of some sort of punishment.

This is what leads to one of our more interesting penal rituals, the ritual confession the "guilty" are often required to make. If you want a thorough (and thoroughly depressing) breakdown of it, check out this superb Frontline documentary on plea bargains. A major part of a plea bargain is that the person taking the plea has to admit their guilt. But as the doc shows, a lot of times these people are not guilty, or at least not guilty of what they're being charged with. Which leads to the odd situation of a judge or prosecutor explaining to someone what they've done and then that person having to repeat back this fictive story as part of their plea deal.

Well, much the same happens in much police interrogation. After all, you wouldn't be being interrogated if you weren't guilty of something (so goes the attitude of many). And while they haven't (and probably won't ever) release the audio of the police interrogation of Ahmed, it's not terribly hard to guess how it went based on the story the police are telling. I would hazard a guess that a confused 14 year old was suddenly handcuffed and lead out of school for reasons he didn't understand (seriously, look at how bewildered he appears in this picture):

Pictured: The face of evil?
Then they ask him what this object is. He explains it's a clock. Then they tell him to cut the bullshit and tell them what this really is. And then he again explains it's a clock, but now he's starting to sound really nervous, because he doesn't know why he's there or why these large, armed men are so angry with him. His uncertainty reinforces the officer's belief he's lying about something, so he gets even more aggressive in his questioning, while Ahmed continues to just answer that it's a clock.

This is the kafka-esque nature of the criminal justice system for Black and Brown people in America -- you have to admit your guilt whether you're guilty or not, and you have to give them a story about your guilt, which can be very difficult when you're not guilty of anything. So your literally factual statement of "I made a clock and brought it to show my teacher" becomes evidence that you're lying, obstructing the investigation, and a hostile and uncooperative suspect because you refuse to explain to them how you committed the crime you didn't commit.

This is the only possible way both the school and police can still claim they acted appropriately. Even though their entire belief the object in question was a bomb is that it had wires. Again, a rational, sane observer might point out that typically a bomb needs some sort of explosives attached to it. Or the fact that most people who are planing to bomb their school don't bring the bomb to school and proudly show it to a teacher.

Thankfully it appears things will probably turn out well for Ahmed (after all, when the President* chimes in in support of you, that's typically a pretty powerful bit to have in your back pocket), but this is only so because it became a national media story. Imagine that Ahmed's didn't go viral and ponder what would be happening to him right now. Then take a second to ponder the fact that what you're imagining is happening right now. And then, you know, feel bad about it and maybe do something about it.

*Update: As Sam Biddle points out, Ahmed is lucky that he's American, because were he Yemeni, this would have been more than enough evidence to qualify for a "signature strike," and instead of inviting him to the White House, Obama would have likely killed him via drone strike. So…hurray for progress?

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