By William J. Astore / TomDispatch
William Astore, Up in Arms and Armor in America
Consider this a rarity. In my introductions to TomDispatch pieces, I’ve seldom quoted myself, but in April 2021 I wrote a piece I called “Slaughter Central” and, as a lead-in to retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore’s thoughts on the mad Republican response to the recent school slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, let me offer these excerpts from it. Sadly enough, I wouldn’t change a word.
“By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason’s simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there’s no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there’s almost no way even to know.
“On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There’s really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You’ll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.
“Put another way, we’re a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central…
“Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let’s just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.
“And if that doesn’t stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, ‘More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million).’
“…Think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe… Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.”
And with that in mind, let Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, take you into the response from hell to that reality, the “hardening” of American schools. Tom
Why Going “Hard” Is Taking the Easy Way Out
American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.
Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.
That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.
Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.
As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.
In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within. These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.
Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?
In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns. Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.
The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out
Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.
I never ran such a drill myself.
Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.
That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.
But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.
A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision. Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?
Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”
Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?
Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)
Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?
What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.
And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.
As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.
I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”
Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restricting their sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.
Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.
Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.
And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.