This was an op-ed style piece I wrote recently, in response to the Parkland school tragedy. As I plan to monetize this blog via a PayPal link on the site – if anyone appreciates my work here and is able to contribute, I would really appreciate it! I’m an unemployed person struggling in the final stage of a self-funded PhD.
On May 4th, 1970 chaos reigned on the Kent State (Ohio) campus. What had begun as a non-violent student protest of the Vietnam War, the Draft, and creeping militarization of domestic (social spaces) – ended in violence. The campus National Guard cadets had been deployed to deter their unarmed fellow students, given strict instructions not to shoot – and yet – fellow student photographers captured the result of an anxious armed student triggering an avoidable massacre. The event is still causing controversy, with facts of what transpired that day still hotly contested. As has been previously documented, College campuses across North America still remain militarized spaces, with military hardware sitting in their ‘armouries’.
Ask any feminist security scholar, and they will tell you, militarization is a very familiar scholarly concept and cultural phenomenon. The field of Critical Military Studies, particularly, has been exploring the socio-cultural and political dimensions of this phenomenon. My own recent research highlighted the ‘classical’ history and influences of militarization in the higher education context, in relation to the Minerva Initiative (a DoD security and defence research network). My research also highlighted common critical terrorism issues, such as the complicated mess of definition(s) of terrorism – in relation to a perceived expansion of the definition of terrorist to incorporate ‘protesters’ and ‘dissenters’, in what is referred to as a ‘social contagion’ in Minerva Initiative parlance. This raises questions considering post-2016 political changes, the rise in populism and ‘white terror’ movements. Indeed, as this TIME article highlights, regarding a 1927 school bombing, when such sudden violence is inflicted on school campuses, by someone who does not match contemporary views of the ‘terrorist’ identity – how are we to understand and contextualise it?
There is ample research suggesting that when ‘terrorist’ violence is committed by the state, or supported in some way by the state, it is not perceived as ‘terrorism’ (by the state at least). Feminist scholars exploring the intersection of political economy and security suggest this is possibly due to relative economic security of the state. So, violence which is perpetrated by non-state actors (or an aggressive oppositional state), which negatively impacts on the economic security of the state, is terrorism; the violence perpetrated by a hegemonic state in pursuing state security, regardless of cost, is not terrorism. Given that IR, as it is widely understood, is western and male-centric, non-state violence perpetrated by a perceived ‘Other’ is also terrorism – and racialized. Peace economists have also been prolific in exploring the economic connections to security. Views on terrorist violence are also clearly racialized.
Could it be that the reason we are not seeing the narrative of terrorism considered in the Florida school shooting example, is because the state security infrastructure (military) and the NRA (a major lobbying and financial support to the state) is implicated?
A recent DemocracyNow article has highlighted a troubling issue, at the heart of the recent Florida high school massacre – which thus far appears to be going under-reported in the vast news coverage of the event and resulting courageous non-violent youth protest. This article (and interview with Pat Elder, director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, an organization that confronts militarism in schools) claims that the teenage shooter, prior to expulsion, was an active and successful member of his campus JROTC. The JROTC is a US military initiative aimed at recruitment in schools, which was also funded by the NRA (a recent tweet highlighted a $10,000 equipment i.e. weaponry upgrade for the school). Though what this reader & militarization scholar found most troubling about this report, was the otherwise innocuous statement that the shooter was wearing his JROTC shirt whilst carrying out the attack – to “blend in” on campus and go undetected. So insidious and commonplace is such a military and NRA presence on high school campuses across Northern America (and no doubt college campuses to some degree), that the perpetrator of this crime felt hidden and emboldened by the ‘uniform’ on a campus he had been expelled from. This problematic military initiative not only groomed this child, and many other children, for such accuracy and ultraviolence – but with the financial and material support of the NRA, these organisations also felt it appropriate to award ‘medals’ of honor to other fellow students on the programme who were caught up in, and victims of, the violence. One of these students, Peter Wang, who sadly died holding a door open in the chaos, was awarded posthumous entry into West Point Academy class of 2025. This highlights another problematic link and narrative associated with the concepts of heroism, masculinity (and the failures of toxic masculinity), sacrifice and military or militarized membership. We are also, unfortunately, seeing the Parkland event further mired in the complexities of conspiracy theory interest, such as happened with the ‘Little Rock 9’.
President Trump’s (current) view that more guns on campus equals less violence via guns, is not only torn straight from the well-known NRA propaganda playbook, following such crisis events. It is also a view which indicates ignorance of the systems, stakeholders, donors, values, and influences which are already prevalent within schools across the country and inherent within wider society. Such influences include: the commodification of violence; the militarization of schools; the perception of traditionally ‘soft targets’, such as schools, as a battlefield to be fought on, over ideological and value lines; the arming of educators. This is grooming children for detached violence, through practices, drills and on shooting ranges…on campus!
Such militarization is not new, we have known, written and read about it for many years. The Kent State massacre was supposed to be a turning point. Instead it became one in a long line of massacres at schools and colleges across the country.
The Florida high school attack, we are told in countless ‘woke‘ media pieces, is a turning point. But, years from now – will it be? Until we have the long overdue, holistic, public debates and discussions about the systems, donors and politics inherent in the school system and their wider implications for us as a society. Until research and insights by feminist scholars, on issues such as militarization, (toxic) masculinity and violence, is taken seriously by mainstream politics, IR, and the media, we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes, and parents will continue to mourn children lost as collateral to a militarized education system.
Thankfully, we are seeing further evidence that protest and youth are a potent mix for change…whether walking out, standing up, laying down or vocally advocating for change; the students may yet teach us something fundamental about values, priorities, leadership, and the kind of society we want to be. However, I would caution against limiting the public conversation to ‘guns’ and regulation…as a society and as an academic community, we have a long way to go in addressing the militarization of knowledge production. Regardless of the outcome(s) of this current activism by the Parkland survivors – they may still end up on college campuses like Kent State and others, which remain militarized. This is much bigger than the NRA and private gun ownership. As scholars, it is our duty to support their hard-work with a pedagogy which supports their activist interest and guides them to scholarly work with which they may better construct robust argument and critique – in an increasingly unstable global landscape. It is not guns, or absentee educators that these young people need on campus – but supportive, critical and engaging scholars(hip).