Zero Tolerance

#IStandWithAhmed and the Silence on the Drone Wars

Easier to pick on the other than to reflect on yourself.



Last week, ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock he made from a circuit board to school to show his teachers, and ended up being taken away by cops because a teacher worried the device looked a lot like a bomb. 

The suspension, while tragic, is also, tragically, far too common. The pages of Reason are full of victims of zero tolerance policies of all races. A young boy who shapes his Pop Tart into a guns may not be as sympathetic as a tinkerer, but deserves to get to express himself and be a child without being treated like a criminal. 

The Islamophobia element of the story helped it spread far and wide in the media, even as the concomitant discussion on whether zero tolerance policies had gone too far has largely been absent. That's unfortunate. Insofar as Mohamed's race or religion contributed to the teacher's decision, that should be condemned. But the policies under which the school operated to send Mohamed to police would apply just as easily, and have applied just as easily, even absent the appearance of profiling. 

The zero tolerance policies that have created a climate where educational institutions treat children like criminals for misinterpreted harmless behavior were birthed in the 1990s, as a response to school shootings in the decade, and ramped up after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 

Even Barack Obama weighed in on Mohamed, tweeting an invitation for the teenager to show his clock off at the White House. But in a very real sense, Obama could have just as easily been responsible for Mohamed's death. A teenage Muslim boy with an electronic device of unknown origin in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, could have been a target of a drone war. "Signature strikes" are drone strikes where the targets aren't identified by name or affiliation with a known terorrist group, but with fact patterns that suggest terrorist activity. Fact patterns like being a military-age Muslim male tinkering with electronics in one of the places the United States drone bombs regularly. 

Since 2004, drone strikes have killed more than 4,400 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, the vast majority coming under the Obama administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Among the casualties were at least 850 civilians, including more than 200 children. The numbers could be higher. The United States uses a liberal definition for justified kills, claiming if a victim meets certain fact patterns, they can be considered a legitimate target. 

None of this came up in the social media storm over Ahmed. When 14-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, an American citizen and son of an Al Qaeda leader who came to Yemen to look for his father, was killed in a drone strike, Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, suggested Al-Awlaki should have picked a "more responsible father." 

The drone war is real, even if Americans don't want to talk about it. It would be impossible to wage without a liberal dose of profiling. Targets are chosen based on their religious and geographic affiliations and the activities they appear to be engaged in. The White House came up with lists for drone kills on "Terror Tuesdays."   

The environment in which it seemed normal for an engineering teacher to call the police because a teenage student showed him a circuit board fashioned to tell time grew directly out of not just zero tolerance policies but also our decade-plus long war on terror and its culture of fear. Boston once shut down over a suspicious looking device that was a guerilla marketing ad for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Before that an MIT student was arrested at the Boston airport for wearing a circuit board as an art installation. Moments after Obama tweeted Mohamed a White House invitation, the White House was put on lockdown over a "suspicious package," found in a park several blocks away, while the president wasn't even in the White House. 

So the idea that there's something especially wicked about the school and police in Irving, Texas, is not just wrong, it's a distraction. The drone war, despite the efforts of some civil liberties activists, did not become a major issue in the 2012 race. It is not an issue any of the Democrats, and few of the Republicans, have addressed in 2016, and it doesn't look like voters will punish them for ignoring the issue. Standing with Ahmed won't erase Americans' complacency in a decade long murder campaign in the Muslim world. That the drone war doesn't kill as many people as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did doesn't excuse it easier. It's easy to laugh at a scapegoat, at an other, for perceived Islamophobia, much harder to examine the popular opinions, Islamophobic or not, that have contributed to the sustained, bipartisan war on terror.