This piece was originally posted at goodmenproject.com.
On the first day of first grade, my teacher introduced the class to the “guidelines” we would be expected to follow. We were told that minor transgressions would result in “yellow card” warnings and major ones would lead us “straight to red.” Students “on red” would have to write reflections on what they had done wrong and multiple-offense miscreants would be sent to the principal’s office, but students who had no card pulled on them would be rewarded with candy at the end of each day.
When administrators visited the class, they explained that this color-coded discipline system would prepare us for second grade, third grade, and eventually, the “real world,” where we would be held totally accountable for our actions. How simple and fair it all seemed: the good were honored, the bad were punished. Our world was one of rules and consequences.
And then, a few weeks later, the “real world” struck.
September 11, 2001.
When we returned to school, a boy in my class mentioned the attack, only to be reprimanded by a staff member who asked him to “save that conversation for home.” Nobody in class again mentioned it for the rest of the school year.
I continued on through grade school with a baseline understanding of the US response to the attack. In 2003, we invaded Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam possessed nuclear weapons and had colluded with al-Qaeda to perpetrate the hijackings. Before April 2005, 9,200 Iraqi civilians, many of them children like me, had already died at the hands of our military for this colossal lie. When my peers and I wondered aloud why not so much as a “yellow card” was pulled on the US government for what was clearly a “red card” offense, we were again told to save the conversation for home.
Meanwhile, teachers were still writing up students for talking out of turn, insisting that the real world would be even harsher on us. In high school, they actually brought the real world to us, with the introduction of roving bands of security guards and a gun-wielding on-duty police officer. At this point, we were assumed to be at least somewhat competent, and thus prepared for more adult-appropriate consequences, like getting arrested for drug dealing. The architects of the Iraq War, however, had still not been brought to “real world justice” for their war crimes, and, with impunity, our government had started enhancing its aggressive drone program. One 2009 cluster bomb attack, almost undoubtedly the work of the US, left 21 children dead in Yemen’s al-Majalah.
As I left high school, I realized that our schools’ discipline systems fail when, in the real world around us, justice follows the ugly rules of power. In the school world, we’re “toughening kids up for the real world” with career-ruining marijuana arrests, while in the “real world” itself, we’re effectively absolving Donald Rumsfeld for his complicity in the destruction of an entire country. If we find it too embarrassing to tell children that, in the adult world, the powerful are well-equipped and well-positioned to wheedle their way out of punishment, I suggest that we start reconfiguring our adult system of justice so that fair and swift punishment awaits the bullies among us.
We can begin this push for universal accountability by bringing to justice those political figures, present and past, who have used their power to illegally wreak havoc on other nations. That Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and George Tenet have thus far been let off scot-free for their war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, and in the Abu Ghraib prison, is simply incompatible with the notions of universal justice and fair punishment that we propagate in our schools.
If we want to create a model for schools to follow when designing their internal disciplinary structures, we should ensure that rehabilitation exists in the repercussions these international bullies face. Real justice will require them to spend the rest of their lives trying to mend the wounds they’ve inflicted, exacting from them hefty fines to be dedicated to the reconstruction of Iraq, and obligating them to serve in, say, internally displaced people’s camps or organizations working to alleviate the crisis of over-crowded housing in Iraq.
We should use the example of high-profile war criminals in Iraq to fashion a legal order that young people will be proud to join. We must also discuss with students what “justice,” as a concrete concept, will and should mean for them once they leave school. Marian Wright Edelman elucidated the inconsistency in the messages that children receive, lamenting that grown-ups tell “children to not be violent while marketing and glorifying violence…Adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America.” Indeed, if we hope to actually modify the behavior of disobedient students, surely we should show them that the most powerful disobedient adults in the world are undergoing similar behavior modification for their more serious assaults on peace.