One hour before 16-year-old Jeff Weise began shooting his classmates, I was standing in a high school hallway a thousand miles due south of Red Lake, Minnesota, staring at the image of another young man in a flak jacket brandishing an assault weapon. The US Navy recruiting poster, the largest item on a bulletin board labeled "Student Activities," was captioned with the slogan, "The Timid Need Not Apply."
The slogan was printed in digital-style lettering -- an appeal, I expect, to the geeky and the gawky alike. According to reports, Jeff Weise was some of both. While I can't say whether the increased militarization of US high schools played a role in Weise's fateful decision to go on a killing spree, the mixed messages students receive in school about guns and killing are bound to influence this impressionable age group in significant and sometimes deadly ways.
The Red Lake shootings no doubt will be used to argue for "beefed up security" in high schools across the country. In my district, students must have IDs and are prohibited from bringing into school items such as nail clippers and water pistols. At the same time, guns enter schools every day on the belts of full-time police officers and in the glossy advertisements of military recruiters who represent the biggest arms traders in the world.
Elsewhere in the school I visited on March 21 were brightly colored posters urging cooperation and tolerance. Perhaps students breeze by these and the recruiting posters without much thought, but it is harder to ignore the recruiters themselves who roam the hallways in uniform, talking to students, drawing them in. It is also hard to miss the flashy recruitment ads on the TV "news" programs piped into the high schools, the Army cinema vans that target schools around the country and the phone calls that students receive at home from recruiters who won't take no for an answer. Recruiters hang around school bus stops handing out their cards, and they show up for college and career fairs to entice students with enlistment bonuses and education benefits.
A Veterans for Peace colleague and I were in the school during the lunch period to share information with students about alternatives to the military. Two US Marine recruiters stopped by our table. One of them had seen combat in Iraq and wanted to make sure we understood the duty he felt to his family and country to keep wars away from US shores. Later, I wondered if, when he heard about the Red Lake shootings, he caught a glimpse of the futility of his goal and the myriad ways that wars always come home.
During our tabling, we conduct a survey asking students to share their views about the Iraq war, military recruitment in their schools, and a draft. On blank legal pads, they offer thoughtful, earnest responses. A solid majority opposes the war, and responses are overwhelmingly anti-draft. Even pro-war students react strongly to the loss of personal freedom that a draft signifies. Views about military recruitment tend to be tolerant of recruiters, but at this school, more than half who responded on the recruitment issue expressed serious concerns. One student wrote, "The military should come by less often because it makes the students here a little nervous. It brings some fear into the school and an obligation to join a program to which not everyone agrees." Recruiters were described as "dangerous" and "pushy".
"The Timid Need Not Apply." The implication, of course, is not only that strong people use big guns, but also that peacemakers are weaklings. Why does this myth linger? Even a cursory review of US Civil Rights history reveals the sheer guts involved in confronting terrorism without body armor and weaponry. And if one cares to look, courageous peacemaking goes on in every corner of the world in the face of widespread brutality and injustice. In recent news, there were the Palestinian children who, carrying palm fronds and olive branches, faced armed soldiers as they marched along with international supporters and donkeys toward Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Georgetown University students accomplished a hunger strike calling for living wages for campus custodial staff. And there were the Iraq veterans and family members of enlisted soldiers who took special risks speaking out against the war during the hundreds of vigils, rallies and marches on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Did Jeff Weise know that peacemaking requires the bravest hearts of all?
The day after our high school tabling, I paid a visit to a US Navy recruiting center to ask what they knew about the poster I'd seen and if they thought it was appropriate to display in schools. The lieutenant in the office wouldn't comment and referred me to the regional public affairs officer, who cheerfully informed me that the Navy Seal depicted in the poster represented "the most fiercely combat-ready Special Forces program in the Navy," and she felt high school students had a right to know this was an option for them. "Just like college is an option," she said. She stressed that the Modified M-4 military assault rifle displayed on the poster was not available anywhere other than in the military.
While I was waiting for the US Navy recruiting center to open (it was late), I'd stopped into the US Army recruiting center nearby. I wanted to ask what strings are attached to the hefty enlistment bonuses now being offered to recruits. When my conversation with the bristling recruiter moved into the subject of war and peace, he suddenly pulled out his pocketknife and opened it. "See this?" he said, with an intimidating gesture. "This can be used either for good or for bad."
For the life of me, I can't think of any good that is done with an assault rifle, military-issue or not.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and is an associate member of Veterans for Peace in Austin, Texas. Her columns have been published in the Austin American-Statesman and Common Dreams. She can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org.