May 21, 2009

Learning For Life

by contributor John Lucaites

The scene above could be an image of a drug bust somewhere in Mexico or Colombia, or it could be a rescue scene from an episode of 24 or The Unit. But it’s neither. Instead, it is a photograph of a group of Explorers in California “portraying Border Patrol agents rushing into a room filled with fake poison gas” and “aiming their weapons at a man before realizing he was a wounded hostage.”

Explorers is a coed affiliate of the Boy Scouts run under a program called “Learning for Life.” According to its website, the primary goal of the program is “career exploration … designed to help young people make intelligent decisions regarding their future.”

According to The Times feature, 35,000 Explorers participate in the career program in “law enforcement,” which, among other things, trains 14-21 year olds in how to “confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence.” In short, it is something of a paramilitary version of Jr. ROTC which populates many high schools and reduces citizenship and patriotism to the model of military life.

Military and paramilitary organizations are vital and necessary arms of government, to be sure. That said, one has to wonder if such militaristic “Learning for Life” programs offer the most effective model for animating critical thinking and a productive civic life amongst our most impressionable citizens.

At “No Caption Needed,” we have regularly written about cultural practices (here, here, and here, for example) which not only “normalize” and reinforce a war culture but animates a cycle of violence. I was reminded of this process by the picture above, embedded in a NYT slide show offering Explorers “playing at” hunting down suicide bombers, hijackers, snipers, and illegal immigrants with toy guns. Aside from the fact the vast majority of “illegal immigrants” are otherwise law abiding citizens—and in any case, certainly not terrorists— the photographs teeter back and forth between playfulness and dead seriousness.

This ironic tension is a palpable reminder of the fine line between play and serious business, and how the former can seem innocent (and even endearing, as in this image that appeared here at BAGnewsNotes on Tuesday), even as it coaches more severe behaviors.

Notice how the same toy guns that seem harmless in the photo alongside the bus appear threateningly dangerous in the bottom image. Put differently, these photographs visualize the very logic that underwrites the production of a war culture: making warlike behavior seem harmless—and indeed fun—even as it gestures toward a putative, if not ominously mistaken, larger purpose. Learning for life, indeed.

(Adapted from a post at No Caption Needed)

(images: Todd Krainin for The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
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