America is not a brave nation.
Yes, that’s a heretical thing to say. Yes, our military is the world’s finest and our servicewomen and men provide daily examples of incontestable courage. Yes, police officers brave bullets, firefighters rush into burning buildings and ordinary Janes stand in harm’s way to save complete strangers on a routine basis. Yes, there are brave people all over this country, people who put self second every day.
But courage is not only about putting self second. Courage is also about who you are in stressful times, about the ability to not be rattled, to act with sound judgment, to keep your head when those about you are, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
And by that standard, no. There are many words you might use to describe the character of this country, but brave isn’t one of them. Rather, we are fraidy-cats and cowards.
We’ve proven this many times since that Tuesday morning in September of 2001 when Islamic extremists kidnapped four planeloads of our fellow citizens and turned them into guided missiles in an attack that ripped away our illusions of security.
We proved it by bungling into a needless war chasing terrorists who were not there, by burning mosques and criminalizing Islam, by compromising basic civil rights for the Great Pumpkin of security.
And we proved it again last Monday when Ahmed was arrested for bringing a clock to school.
Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old ninth-grader from MacArthur High in Irving, Texas, had built the digital clock at home and was eager to show it to his engineering teacher, who liked it. When his English teacher saw it, however, she thought it looked like a bomb. Next thing he knew, the teenage tinkerer, who wants to be an engineer when he grows up, was under arrest.
There’s a picture of him online that’s heartbreaking: It shows a slight, brown-skinned boy in glasses, looking frightened and confused. He’s wearing a NASA T-shirt. He is also wearing handcuffs.
Ahmed says police told him he was being charged with building a hoax bomb. James McLellan, a spokesman for the Irving police, told local station WFAA, “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only tell us that it was a clock.”
That, of course, is because it was a clock.
Eventually, whoever has custody of the brain at the Irving PD must have recognized this for the Islamophobic idiocy it was. Ahmed was released. No charges will be filed.
Word of all this set Twitter ablaze. Ahmed has received supportive tweets from Arianna Huffington and Hillary Clinton. Mark Zuckerberg invited him to Facebook. President Obama invited him to the White House. And his ordeal inspired a trending hashtag: (hashtag)IStandWithAhmed.
Which is good. But one hopes it will also inspire a little soul-searching for this country, which would be better.
Because once again, fear has made us our own worst enemy, has made us stupid. The fact that a bright kid — a kid with initiative, a kid who only wanted to make his teacher proud, a kid who, by all appearances, is precisely what we wish more kids would be — was hauled away in handcuffs for those very attributes ought to make us sober and reflective about the nation we have become in the years since Sept. 11.
One is reminded of the time President Bush strode out on an aircraft carrier beneath a celebratory banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” But given that the primary goal of terrorism is to make people afraid, maybe somebody should find that banner and ship it to al-Qaida.
Judging from what happened to Ahmed, they deserve it more than we ever did.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.