Republican presidential candidates were given a golden opportunity during Wednesday night's undercard debate to encourage innovation and support a brilliant young boy whose story of being arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school sparked outrage across the country.
Instead, they missed the point.
The question seemed straightforward enough, starting off with a story that had taken the nation by storm involving 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamad, a Muslim high school student who hand-made a digital clock and took it to school to impress his teachers, only to be hauled from his classroom and placed in handcuffs out of suspicion the device was a fake bomb. Police later released Mohamad after finding that it was -- in fact -- just a clock.
In the time since his arrest, Mohamad has been showered with messages of support from President Obama, major NASA scientists and the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed from social media users who hope the incident won’t discourage the young teen from staying curious.
“How would you, as president, strike a balance between vigilance and discrimination?” CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper asked, directing the question at Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has spoken often on the campaign trail about Muslim extremists.
“It's not politically correct to say that, but the way you strike that balance, you say to Muslim leaders, denounce these fools, these radical terrorists by name, say they are not martyrs,” Jindal said in response.
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It seems very pointed that the question was aimed at Jindal specifically. His parents emigrated from India a few short months before he was born. As a child, he exchanged his given name of Piyush for Bobby. Despite his background, Jindal has led a charge against so-called “hyphenated Americans.” He doesn’t see himself as Indian-American or think that others should maintain that ethnic identity. One of his oft-used phrases on the campaign trail is: “Immigration without assimilation is invasion.”
But when confronted again in a follow up about how leaders should strike that balance between vigilance and discrimination, Jindal said, “Sure, I don't think a 14-year-old should ever get arrested for bringing a clock to school.”
Jindal then transitioned to the case of Kim Davis, the controversial Kentucky clerk who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite a court order to do so. He also brought up Christian business owners who object to performing wedding services for same-sex couples based on their religious objections.
“Let's talk about the Christian florist, the caterer, the musician, who simply want to say, don't arrest us for having -- or don't discriminate against us, don't shut down our businesses, don't fine us thousands of dollars, for believing marriage is between a man and a woman. Lets talk about not discriminating against Christians,” he said.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham jumped in saying he was more worried about “radical Islamic terrorists who are already planning another 9/11.”
Former New York Gov. George Pataki chimed in bringing religion back into the mix, saying those freedoms don’t trump the rule of law.
None of the candidates said Mohamad was subject to discrimination.
"I felt like I was a criminal. I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called … in middle school I was called a terrorist, called a bomb maker,” Mohamad told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in an interview Wednesday. “Just because of my race and religion.”
Mohamad hopes to transfer schools in the fall.