A few decades ago there was a saying people used when they were frightened suddenly. They said they “had their wits scared out of them.”
Apparently, it’s still happening.
As you’ve no doubt heard or read or seen, a 14-year-old boy in Irving, Tex., Ahmed Mohamed, built a clock out of who knows what and took it to school to show and impress his teachers.
Instead, he scared their wits out of them.
Rather than praising the young man for his intellectual initiative, they called the police and had him taken away in handcuffs. Chances are good that had his first name been Timmy that probably wouldn’t have happened, but that can be dealt with at another time.
Because the 14-year-old has a foreign-looking name, and because he was adept at using McGyver-like abilities to patch disparate things together into something that worked — a clock, for goodness sakes — people suddenly relieved of their wits said he had made a fake bomb.
The police said they kept him in handcuffs, without calling the young man’s parents, by the way, because he wouldn’t “go into detail” about the clock he made.
It was a clock. It kept time. Hours and minutes and seconds, all the things a clock can do. And he made it at home by himself.
Yet it absolutely scared people out of their minds. One commenter on social media right here in Louisville said that Ahmed “was just practicing until he could bring the real one to school.” Apparently this commenter was also a mind-reader.
The events of 9/11 took a great deal from this country — it took nearly 3,000 lives and forever changed our way of thinking about and keeping our own safety. We have sacrificed many personal liberties in the name of safety. Years ago, one of the nation’s leaders said a people who sacrifice liberty for security will have neither.
Politicians, as we all know, are living and dying on fear. These politicians — and the people who write about them, talk about them, support them — feed the rest of us a constant diet of fear. Fear the foreigners; fear big government; fear Islam (more than anything else); be afraid; be very afraid.
It isn’t all that new a phenomena. Richard Hofstadter captured our pre-occupation with the fear of knowledgeable people, our fear of those we don’t know, in a famous 1963 work called “Anti-intellectualism in American Thought.” He chronicled how those knowing less feared those who knew more; how those without education or intellectual inclination reviled their opposites.
He noted that a lot of people during the years of the Cold War and the A-bomb had “their wits scared out of them.”
Well, thank God Pope Francis and the church don’t feel that way. Thank God they have a message, an example, a way of living, that allow us to face fear, to conquer it, to abandon it as a way of life.
Pope Francis has said repeatedly over the past two years that once we understand that everyone on earth — every single person — is loved by God, we can change our lives in response to that love. It is a love, he said in April, that “means human freedom is fully realized”
“We are distracted by many things, by other voices that ware more superficial,” he said. And sometimes we pay attention to those voices; we “are afraid to listen to the Lord’s voice because we think it can take away our freedom.”
Speaking to a group of young people at the Vatican on April 4, the pope noted that “everyone is afraid” from time to time.
“So the real issue is to figure out the difference between good fear and bad fear,” he said. “Good fear is prudence, being careful, and bad fear is something that cancels you out, turns you into nothing.”
Pope Francis also noted in 2013 that “modern societies are demonstrating fear of other religions, and also fear of any religion.”
That alone provides another reason “why followers of different faiths should meet, dialogue and work together to promote the common good and show others that faith makes positive contributions to society.”
The pope reminded those who fear religions with which they are not familiar, that painting entire groups of people with the same brush — branding all Muslims as terrorists, for instance — isn’t productive.
Talking and working with people of other faiths “does not mean renouncing your identity,” he said. We must reach out to others with respect and friendship, he noted.
“A future of peace for everyone will require a coexistence that is respectful of diversity,” the pope said. “There is only one path for overcoming fear, and it is that of dialogue, encounters marked by friendship and respect.”
Perhaps we can take those words to heart. Perhaps we can learn not to fear an enterprising 14-year-old with the ability to build his own clock.
Record Editor Emeritus