When a student takes a gun to school and goes on a shooting rampage—as one 15-year-old is charged with doing in a community near me in California— the public immediately expresses its shock and confusion over how such a thing could ever occur.
Educators, politicians, and the mental health professionals who are called upon to deal with tragedies of this sort all struggle to come up with a plausible explanation. Usually, their attention focuses on narrow, individualistic conditions that might provoke such a violent outburst. The American Psychological Association's brochure, Warning Signs of Teen Violence (http://helping.apa.org/warningsigns/), advises us that factors which contribute to teen violence include:
- peer pressure;
- need for attention or respect;
- feelings of low self-worth;
- early childhood abuse or neglect;
- witnessing violence at home, in the community or in the media;
- easy access to weapons.
While all of these conditions can certainly play a triggering or facilitating role in violent behaviour, they don't really speak to the deeper, societal influences that come into play when people elect violence as their response to the stressful conditions that surround them. For example, the mere presence of a gun at home may make it easier to commit violence, but it does not explain what inspires a student to take it to school and actually use it. To understand this, one must look more deeply at the culture and values that are instilled in people beginning at an early age. In particular, it is important to acknowledge and take into account the dehumanising influence of militarism on the socialisation process. The relationship between school shootings and militarism has become more apparent to me personally because of the work that I do in the United States for the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO). It is a small educational organisation that reaches out to young people by visiting high schools in San Diego County. San Diego also happens to be the location of one of the largest military complexes in the world.
Project YANO's goals are to promote careers in social change and peacemaking, and publicise non-military alternatives for job training and college financing. With the help of anti-war military veterans, we also educate young people about the realities of war and the military that are not revealed by the armed forces recruiters who are present in every US high school on almost a daily basis. One of the schools I have visited in this work is Santana High School, where 15-year-old Andy Williams is accused of killing two people and wounding 13 others in a shooting spree in March 2001.
Here are a few facts about the school, the shooting and the community around the school that hint at some of the deeper societal causes of school violence that are usually ignored by the politicians and behavioural “experts”: Santee, the California town where Santana High School is located, is in a semi-rural part of San Diego County. It is a very conservative area with lots of privately-owned guns. Because of a history of local activity by the racist Ku Klux Klan, some people in the community refer to it as “Klantee”. In the 1970s, the Klan and another racist group, White Aryan Resistance, openly recruited at Santana High School until a group of parents threatened protests. In the last few years, Santee has been in the news because of a racially-motivated attack that paralysed an African American soldier, and because of racist fliers that were circulated at Santana High School— where 85 percent of the students are white. So far, there has been no overt evidence that Andy Williams belonged to any organised hate groups or was targeting people of a particular race or ethnicity in the Santana shooting; however, the statistics do not suggest a truly random shooting. Non-white students—of African, Asian and Latin American descent— make up 15 percent of the Santana student body, with the Latin American students totalling nine percent. Yet, 40 percent of the 13 wounded people were of Latin American descent, and one of the two students killed was part Asian. School district and community officials have protested at any suggestion of racial overtones to the shooting, but the lack of an alternative explanation for the lopsided numbers suggests that there was at least subliminal, if not overt, racism at work as the shooter squeezed his gun trigger.
Project YANO has regularly attended career fairs at Santana High School to counter the presence of military recruiters. The military, especially the US Marine Corps, swarms all over the school. The career fair co-ordinator frequently uses the public address microphone, which carries messages—usually routine school ones—all over the campus, to encourage students to visit military exhibits. We have never heard her urge them to visit Project YANO's display for alternative information. Santana is one of the very few schools where Project YANO has experienced overt student hostility to its counter-recruitment message. During the 1980s, the Grossmont High School District, which includes Santana High School, had to be forced with legal action to grant peace groups the same access to its campuses that the military enjoys. The resulting court ruling is the main reason why Project YANO is able to visit many schools. Before Andy Williams packed his gun and left for school on the morning of 5 March 2001, he put on a shirt emblazoned with the logo of the US Navy's elite commando unit, the SEALs. He was wearing it when he was taken into custody. Seventeen days after the Santana incident, at another school in the same Grossmont district, a student brought two guns to his campus and wounded six people before being subdued. He told police that he had intended to shoot a school administrator who had been responsible for the US Navy rejecting his enlistment a day earlier.
Militarism and prejudice
Behavioural scientists who have studied the phenomenon of rage shootings in US schools have identified a profile that they say is common to most of the attackers. Two of their traits are a sense of victimisation and an interest in the military. One study of 18 young shooters (Class Avenger, by McGee and DeBarnardo, 2001; http://www.sheppardpratt.org/sp_pdf/classavenger.pdf) found that all of them shared these two characteristics. Despite the implied link to the violence, the “experts” never look at where these traits come from or treat them as possible causal factors. In their failure to do so, they ignore a very basic element that underlies and contributes to the problem: the existence of social values broadly influenced by militarism and prejudice. Both belief systems condition people to define social relationships in terms of “us” versus “them”, and to see “them” as less than human. And teaching people to hate each other for their differences is a crucial part of the dehumanisation process that makes war and violence not only possible, but inevitable.
A powerful presence
There is profound irony in schools being attacked in the US by students fascinated with the military. As primary instruments for socialisation and the teaching of values, educational institutions in the US have, for the last decade, been the main focus of efforts by the military to extend its domestic influence. The armed forces have been expanding high school military training programmes and developing new ones geared for lower level schools. In addition, official partnerships between individual military units and schools are increasingly being established to facilitate student tours of military bases and classroom visits by uniformed personnel. Retired aircraft carriers and battleships are being converted into floating war museums, to which entire school student bodies are being brought for propagandising. These various efforts, along with aggressive military recruiting activities and the more general intrusion of militarism in the culture (via movies, music, computer games and the general media), are further popularising military values and soldiering among young people. In any country where the military is allowed to have such a powerful presence in the educational system, there should be little surprise if even a relatively few students decide to respond to the pressures of life by resorting to mass violence. Our behaviour is motivated in large part by our values, and it is inevitable that the strong influence of militarism on those values is going to come out in such a way. Andy Williams, wearing his Navy SEAL sweatshirt, is just one of the latest tragic examples. There will be many more until the problem is confronted from this perspective.