The Ahmed incident provoked deep sadness and unease in me. Whatever else happened, how could anyone think that handcuffing a regular old schoolboy was okay? Given that this has happened though, what could we learn from it? How should we strive to get better as a society? As usual, people that have nothing to do with the real human beings involved in this tragic event have fled to the opposite poles: grandstanding indignation on one side and defensive, self-protective, cover-our-backside posturing – and even vile demonization in some cases – on the other. This movie has played out too many times lately. The details different in each case. The motif the same: The distrust of people by people.
We live in a fear-driven society. Our consumption, our advertising, our media, our political discourse, what we teach our children, how we be in the world is all driven by the paradigm of fear. The paradigm arises in a sense of separation, not connectedness as the core of how we live and relate with each other. The authorities in Irving, Texas did not create that paradigm. They are victims of it. They could not countenance being wrong. In their estimation, the cost of being wrong was too high. In the litigious, fearful, blame-ridden world we live in, they simply did the most risk-averse thing possible. They did not have the courage to believe in the innate goodness of humanity and act from that place. They made the trade-off to sacrifice the innocence of one young boy at the altar of their fears. The fact that the prevalent mores led them to that conclusion, is as much an indictment of all of us in the world, as it is of them.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of the authorities (the teacher, the principal or the senior police officer at the scene), and it is impossible for me to predict how I might have reacted if I was in their shoes. I hope that I would have been able to react very differently, but away from the comfort of low-stakes hypothesizing, it is hard to say what I might have actually done under pressure. Acknowledging the gap between who I am and who I would like to be, it is imaginable that in their place, I too may make the mistake of racial profiling, stereotyping (and these are downright funny coming from me, a South Asian living in the US) and fear-based response. But hand over heart, there is one thing I know for sure. Having made that mistake, I would not run from it. I would not try to justify what I did and hide behind defenses. I would rip my heart out and put it out there for all to see, as a pure heart, as a heart ravaged by fear and prejudice, but not by hatred. A heart that wishes to believe in the connectedness of all there is, but has not been able to make that leap of faith yet. Can the human beings behind the façade of authority open up their hearts to Ahmed and his family, and for once, not worry about politics, religion, litigation, their jobs, the media circus and the news cycle, and themselves? What is happening here is bigger than any of us. If they can find the courage to show up as regular old well-meaning people, show their vulnerability and sincerely apologize to Ahmed, I think all could be forgiven. (Of course, the only people who have the authority to take offense and to forgive are Ahmed and his family. The rest of us are just the peanut gallery.)
What is missing from our society more than courageous actions, is the courage to be human and admit our mistakes, and a resolve to do something about it. We want to fix others, when the only real choice we have, is to fix ourselves.
Albert Einstein had said: “Before we decide anything else, we must decide first and foremost, if the world is a safe place.” Clearly, most of us have decided that the world is not a safe place. But we can choose to be victims of that narrative, or stand up to it, and be willing to accept the consequences of choosing to change it, to act as if the world is a safe place. Because the world is a self-fulfilling prophecy of our assumptions about it.
What can leaders take away from this sorry saga? This is a lesson in accepting the burden of decision-making, and the power of vulnerability and courage.
- When all is on the line, we have to make the decision. There is no room for doubt then. We need to use our best judgement, make a decision, and act. But if proven wrong in hindsight:
- We must show vulnerability and admit we got it wrong. No one must carry the burden of being perfect. We cannot insulate ourselves from our very human emotions and respond mechanically and inauthentically to the negative consequences of our decisions.
- Look at what systemic forces led us to that wrong decision and are we doing enough to change them. We will always be tripped up by the system, the paradigm through which we look at the world. We must do our darnedest to look at the system, not just through it.