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 this sort of tragedy 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
Associations brochure, "Warning Signs of Teen Violence"
(http://helping.apa.org/warningsigns/), advises us that factors
that 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
One also hears frequent mention of faulty parenting, a lack
of counseling and bullying by peers as factors in school violence.
While all of these conditions can certainly play a triggering
or facilitating role in violent behavior, they dont 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 dehumanizing influence
of militarism on the socialization process.
The relationship between school shootings and militarism has
become more apparent to me personally because of the work that
I do for the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project
YANO), an educational organization that reaches out to young people
in San Diego County high schools. San Diego is also the location
of one of the largest military complexes in the world.
Project YANO provides students with information on careers in
social change and peacemaking and 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 military recruiters
in our high schools. One of the schools I have visited for 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 on March 5, 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 behavioral "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 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 paralyzed an African American
soldier, and because of racist fliers that were circulated at
Santana High School where 85 percent of the students
- So far, there has been no overt evidence that Andy Williams
belonged to any organized 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 Latino students totaling nine percent. Yet, 40 percent of
the 13 wounded people were Latinos, and one of the two students
killed was part Asian. School district and community officials
have protested 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 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 Marine Corps, swarms all over the
school. The career fair coordinator frequently uses the public
address microphone to encourage students to visit military exhibits.
We have never heard her urge them to visit Project YANOs
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
Project YANO is able to visit many schools.
- Before Andy Williams packed his gun and left for school on
the morning of March 5, 2001, he put on a shirt emblazoned with
the logo of the U.S. Navys elite commando unit, the SEALs.
He was wearing it when he was arrested.
- 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 was angry with a school administrator who had
been responsible for the U.S. Navy rejecting his enlistment
a day earlier.
Militarism and prejudice
Behavioral scientists who have studied the phenomenon of rage
shootings in U.S. schools have identified a profile that they
say is common to most of the attackers. Two of their traits are
a sense of victimization 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
an apparent link to the violence, the "experts" never
look at where these particular 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
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 dehumanization
process that makes war and violence not only possible, but also
role of the military in our schools
There is profound irony in schools being attacked in the U.S.
by students fascinated with the military. As primary instruments
for socialization and the teaching of values, educational institutions
in the U.S. 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
programs and developing new ones geared for lower level schools.
In addition, official partnerships between individual military
units and schools are increasingly being used to facilitate student
field trips to military bases and classroom visits by uniformed
personnel. Retired aircraft carriers and battleships are being
turned into floating war museums, to which entire student bodies
are being brought for propagandizing.
These various efforts, along with aggressive military recruiting
activities and the more general intrusion of militarism in our
culture (via movies, music, computer games and the general media),
are further popularizing military values and soldiering among
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 behavior 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.
A copy of the court ruling granting school access to peace
groups in the U.S., along with samples of counter-militarism material
for youths, is available at the COMD Web site: http://www.comdsd.org.
Contact Project YANO at: P.O. Box 230157, Encinitas, CA 92023;
email firstname.lastname@example.org. A slightly different version of this article
appeared in Peace News, Nov. 2001, published in Great Britain.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org).