The story of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old kid from Irving, Texas who built a homemade clock and brought it to school, only to be arrested on suspicions of bomb-making, has swept the world. In less than 48 hours, he's gotten an invitation to the White House and Facebook's headquarters, an internship offer from Twitter, and support from millions of people all over the world.
There's no denying the emotional impact of Ahmed's story, or the absurdity of the justifications Irving police gave for his arrest. But sudden, overwhelming, global fame is a daunting thing. And it's especially daunting when it happens to a 14-year-old with no media training or experience on the world stage, who can't possibly have been prepared to be thrust into the spotlight like this, and to have his story co-opted for all kinds of pet causes.
In a Facebook post today, writer Teju Cole captured some of the unease about the tsunami of attention and self-promotion swirling around the Ahmed Mohamed phenomenon. Cole wrote:
There's nothing to dispute in how moronic the Islamophobic reaction by the teacher, principal, and cops in Irving TX to young Ahmed Mohamed was. There's no question that here's a kid with creative energy put through a harrowing ordeal.
But I get twitchy at America's thirst for heroism. The pile of rewards and expectations on Ahmed's fragile shoulders is more about us and our anxieties than about him and what he most needs now: some quieter restitution of the wrong he endured.
The spotlight is a terrible place, and public noise is no refuge. Ahmed is fourteen. He's already being co-opted by our need for fine anecdote, as well as by the suffocating affection of the powers that be.
We know little about what he is, and almost nothing about what he yet may be. What we do know, from experience, is that when America builds you up so much and so fast…watch out.
This nation eats its young. I keep thinking of these black kids who are killed by cops, and then posthumously disrespected with bogus drug tests. I keep thinking of how anyone black or brown who is in the public eye ends up having their family records scoured for any whiff of scandal. That ugliness is the new normal. Undoubtedly we'll soon be hearing things about Ahmed's father or mother or grandfather any moment now. On whose bodies are these social justice carnivals played out?
I think we're too fond of the flashy stories that give us an instantaneous moral glow. Not we. I. I'm too fond of such stories, and I try to step back and think through what's going on there.
Meanwhile, the festival of hatred and exclusion that is the Republican party is rolling full steam ahead. Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims, Blacks, women, gays: all the subjects of their disdain. And about half the country—including many "I stand with Ahmed" bandwagoneers—is fine with *that.*
As Kristen Brown wrote for Fusion, Ahmed is now "a 14-year-old kid not just subject to the ebbs and flows of high school popularity, but also, overnight, the pressures of internet fame." And maybe that overnight fame will serve him well, by catapulting him into to a public life as an advocate for STEM education or, more simply, a well-paid hacker in Silicon Valley. Maybe becoming the white-hot center of attention will do Ahmed and his family nothing but good in the future.
But if we've learned anything about these "social justice carnivals," as Cole puts it, it's that they're often ultimately less than uplifting for the people directly involved. Let's hope that Ahmed Mohamed gets to lead the life he wants to lead, and can avoid the worst parts of the feel-good hype cycle.