LEDs Are Not IEDs

Oh noes! It's a bomb... isn't it?

Oh noes! It's a bomb... isn't it?

"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.”

President Obama tweeted the above in response to the recent story of 14-year old Ahmed Mohammed. On Monday, Ahmed brought a homemade clock to school as an engineering project. School administrators claimed that the clock was “bomblike”. Ahmed was arrested. Like, actually-put-in-cuffs arrested.

Obviously, for a brown Muslim kid to face arrest for a highly exaggerated bomb threat reeks of racism. Undoubtedly, that played a large part in this debacle. This incident is also at the intersection of a few issues. One is nation of teachers who are afraid that their students are going to kill them (that’s a story for another article). The other is a growing and irrational fear of people with technical abilities who like to build; people whom the community calls "Makers".

As soon as I heard about this story, I immediately hearkened back to a story from 2007. In that instance, a guerrilla marketer (VJ Aiwaz) and and an electronics artist (Peter Berdovsky) produced a bunch of LED signs featuring characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, in order to promote the upcoming movie. The signs had magnetic backings and were placed outside around the Boston area.

A few weeks after the signs were placed, a random bystander called police about a “suspicious looking device” at a train station. Soon enough, bomb squads were involved. The city was whipped into a frenzy. The two young men who placed the devices were arrested and charged with “placing a hoax device to incite panic” - a felony charge which carries a five-year maximum sentence. 

For myself and many other young people of the time, the (laughably-called) 2007 Boston bomb scare was the ultimate farce: a prime example of how even the most innocently subversive culture was now viewed through the lens of terrorism. 

Mere months later, a young MIT student named Star Simpson was arrested at gunpoint for trying to board a plane with her own blinkenlichten LED display attached to her backpack. Once again, authorities subsequently tried to charge her with wielding a “hoax device”. That was downgraded to “disorderly conduct”. A judge ordered Star to perform 50 hours of community service and make a public apology.

The very idea of someone being charged with using a “hoax device” angers me. To me, it says: “My job is protecting people. But I don’t actually know what a bomb looks like. Rather than expanding my knowledge, I’m going to use the law to persecute people whom I feel are confusing my perception of what a bomb is.”

Then there's the tragic case of Aaron Swartz, another brilliant young MIT student and one of the first developers of reddit. One day in late 2010, Aaron decided to write a script to batch-download a number of academic articles from JSTOR (MIT's journal repository). It's worth clarifying that these journals were free to download, Aaron just figured out a way to automate the process. Within days, Aaron was arrested and charged with several crimes, including unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Those charges imply that Aaron broke into MIT's network and stole something, neither of which is true.

Aaron was relentlessly harassed by overzealous prosecutors from the US Department of Justice, threatening a prison term of 50 years and a $1 million fine. In the eyes of the DOJ, Aaron was a "hacker"; a malicious criminal. This was their chance to make an example of one of his ilk. On January 11, 2013, after months of continual harassment, Aaron hanged himself. The posthumous biographical documentary, "The Internet's Own Boy" chronicles his life and trial.

When I hear stories like these, I think about how lucky I am. As a child, I had periods of electronics and computer enthusiasm. I like to take things apart and rebuild them. My parents and teachers encouraged me. It seems that if I were a child today (and doubly so, were I not a white guy) I would instead be getting trumped-up lectures about "scaring people with fake bombs” or "hacking".

These young Makers, people like Ahmed, Aaron, Star, VJ and Peter, they are part of America’s future. The proverbial “Best and Brightest”. People who have a drive to build things. As as President Obama points out, that kind of innovative spirit helps to make a nation great.

Amateur scientists, artists, and engineers literally being thrown in jail because an ignorant populace is afraid of those innovators' efforts: it hearkens back to some ugly eras of human history. In modern society, we look back at Galileo, Turing, Einstien, Tesla, and characterize the struggles and persecutions they suffered as the sins our ignorant, unenlightened past. 

The past is not so distant, it seems.

EDIT: boingboing reminds us that Steve Wozniak was arrested and spent a night in juvie for bringing a homemade metronome (another "hoax bomb") to school. Ahmed seems to be in good company. Maybe he'll invent the next iPhone.

circuit prototyping board image - copyright: 
Ziga Cetrtic/Shutterstock