Jamal (not his real name) is a 16 year-old high school student who was minding his own business on Tuesday shopping at Pittsburgh's Waterworks Mall. He was on the sidewalk when a white Chevy Malibu slowed down beside him. In the car were two white men casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts. The men called out to Jamal. They had an offer for him.
Now, when you hear a story about two grown men outside a mall trolling for kids you might fear the worst. If it was a younger child, you might expect them to offer candy or tales of a lost puppy. You might think that a kid who took them up on their offer might meet with an ugly death. In this case, your assumption that the men were offering Jamal the chance to die young is correct.
The men in the white Chevy Malibu wanted to know if Jamal was interested in signing up with the Marines.
To be fair, Jamal is a tall kid. He could easily be mistaken for 18 and the age requirement for joining the Marines is 17 to 29. Jamal explained to them that he was only 16. The men in their civvies and shiny white car didn't miss a beat. They asked him if he went to Fox Chapel High School. They continued to engage him in the benefits of signing up. They only stopped when Jamal held a cell phone to his ear and said he had to make a phone call. Only then did the men stop their drive-by recruitment and leave Jamal who promptly called his Mom to tell her what had happened.
At this point in the story you may have some questions. Questions like: I saw Fahrenheit 9/11; I thought recruiters targeted poor kids and minorities. Isn't the Waterworks in a pricey area? Yes, but it has a Walmart (a known Mecca for the cost-conscious). And, yes, from the name I choose for the 16 year-old, I was purposely telegraphing that Jamal is African American.
So what's wrong with Marines going to malls where the young hang out looking for recruits? I'll let Jamal's mother answer this one.
Theresa (not her real name) is a political activist and about as progressive as it gets. She's completely opposed to the war in Iraq and fearful of a possible draft. So concerned are she and her husband about the possibility of Jamal being subjected to a draft in the future that they have applied for Canadian citizenship. And her son, Jamal, is a bright, sensitive, politically aware kid who often argues about the war with his largely Republican classmates.
Theresa was beside herself when she called me on the phone yesterday and she had many questions. Why did the recruiters continue to talk to her minor son after they found out that he was only 16? What made them think that they had a right to mark her son for possible death on a faraway battlefield? Did they target him in particular because he's African American? What chance does a kid have to make a good decision on their future when they are trolled by Marine recruiters and not by college recruiters or employers?
She recalled an interview with a former recruiter that she had just heard on the Democracy Now radio program. The former recruiter had stated that he had to quit because as he put it, "Going to Iraq is not a career option." He further explained how he just couldn't stay at a job where he had assured a young man that he wouldn't have to go to Iraq and then learned that the young man had ended up dying in that very same place.
As I indicated, Theresa is not an easy mark for a recruiter's pitch and neither is Jamal. Jamal later joked that if they had asked for his name he was going to tell them it was "Ishmael Mohammed."
But what if Theresa had never discussed her feelings about Iraq or George W. Bush with her son? What if Jamal was more of a typical teenager who paid little attention to world events. What if he was one of the many Americans who soldiers returning from combat complain about when people ask them, "What war?" What if this minor child only had the recruiters promises of a good job and skill-training opportunities to base his decision on? Is it right for recruiters to aggressively target minors? They are in our high schools now and they are at job fairs marketed to high school students. Should they have a shot at our children (pun intended) when the children's parents are not present? Should they target them at mall and fast-food parking lots?
In this culture where we try to shield our children from any and all possible harm, including mandating warning labels on everything from music CDs, video games and movies to cigarettes, do the Marines (and other branches of the Armed Services) have an obligation to issue a warning statement to those youngsters whom they try to recruit to be sent to war where they will face real bullets and not the fantasy ones found on a PlayStation?
In this instance the recruiters targeted the wrong mother's son. Theresa is already active in conscientious objectors and antiwar groups. If anything, they have only hardened her resolve. She now has plans to protest outside recruitment stations. She's told me that I shouldn't be too surprised to hear that she might sometime in the near future be arrested for civil obedience.
She will not let her child -- or any mother's son -- be a marked boy.