Weapons as “Gamechangers”

W.J. Astore

Americans have a remarkable faith in weapons as “gamechangers,” as simple panaceas to complex problems.

Yesterday, Donald Trump addressed the NRA convention in Houston, offering guns as a panacea to mass shootings. Once again, Trump said that “highly trained” teachers should be allowed to carry concealed guns in the classroom. Apparently, teachers should now be the equivalent of Special Forces warriors, ready to confront shooters with assault weapons at a moment’s notice. When he was president, Trump suggested these warrior-teachers might even see a small bump in pay for their willingness to carry guns and to serve as quasi-SWAT team members at schools. What generosity!

Just as many Americans see more guns as the answer to domestic violence like mass shootings, yet bigger guns and missiles are seen as “game changers” for complex foreign issues like the Russia-Ukraine War. According to CNN, the U.S. government is considering sending the MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) to Ukraine, which has a range of up to 300 miles, to counter Russian troops. One Congressman in particular thinks it’s a dandy idea:

Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who was part of a congressional delegation trip to Kyiv earlier this month, told CNN he believes the systems could help Ukraine gain significant momentum against Russia. 

“I think it could be a gamechanger, to be honest with you,” Crow said, not only for offensive attacks but also for defense. He explained that Russian conventional artillery, which has a range of about 50km, “would not get close” to Ukrainian urban centers if MLRS systems were positioned there. “So it would take away their siege tactics,” he said of the Russians.

Where to begin? Are Ukrainian troops trained on such a system? How do you get the system into Ukraine to begin with? What if the system is used to strike targets inside of Russian territory? What about Russian warnings that such a system could lead to reprisals against European or American assets? What if less-than-well-trained Ukrainian troops fire a bunch of missiles that end up killing dozens, even hundreds, of innocent people?

No matter. The “answer” is always more guns, more howitzers, more missiles. They’re “gamechangers”!

Indeed, they just may be. Just not in the way that Trump imagines, or Congressman Crow.

Finally, that word: “gamechanger.” It’s a common practice in America to talk about war as if it’s a sport, a game. Call it the triumph of dumbass thinking. War is neither sport nor game, and you’re not going to “game-change” the Russia-Ukraine War, as in turning the tide so Ukraine wins, just by sending the MLRS, just as you’re not going to decrease mass shootings in schools by arming teachers with guns.

We Talk Strangely About Guns

W.J. Astore

Guns are the only innocents in America. To be clear, I’m being sarcastic.

Whenever there’s a school shooting, you can count on the shooter being denounced as evil, as monstrous, as out of his mind. But the guns the shooter uses? There are always people who tell us not to blame the guns. Guns aren’t evil. Guns aren’t monstrous. Guns are, in a word, innocent.

It’s all very strange. I think of the children killed in Texas, along with their teachers, as being innocent. I wish we’d have kept them safe. I wish their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness hadn’t been cut down by bullets. But wish in one hand …

We hear a lot of talk about gun rights and gun safety, almost as if guns indeed had rights, almost as if America’s true goal was to keep guns safe.

America is indeed a country where guns are safe, secure, and free to roam. We have more than 400 million of them, including more than 20 million military-style assault weapons. Congress is not seriously acting to put meaningful restrictions on guns. We’re lucky if we’ll see a “red-flag” law (allowing the confiscation of guns from a person who makes deadly threats before he decides to go on a murderous rampage), or possibly universal background checks. Of course, neither of these will curtail gun purchases and availability, and neither would have stopped the latest shooter in Texas, who purchased his guns legally and apparently showed no clear “red flag” before he attacked a school and killed 19 innocent children.

And there’s that word again. Innocent. We need to focus on child rights and child safety, not gun rights and gun safety. Don’t you think?

I’ve been a gun owner and have shot everything from a pellet rifle and .22 pistol to a .44 magnum Model 29 Smith & Wesson, made famous by Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.”

Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.

I’ve felt the powerful allure of guns. I also have no problem with hunters, target shooters, and all the responsible gun owners we have in America. But when guns are responsible for 45,000 deaths a year in America (data from 2020), and when mass shootings become almost forgettable in their repetition (except in the most heinous cases, like the latest mass murder event in Texas), it’s time to admit that guns are not the innocents here. They are part of the problem, and restrictions to their ownership is part of the solution.

Guns and Money!

W.J. Astore

Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.

In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China. 

Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts.  The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress.  This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates.  The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.

When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.

Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:

War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”

The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.

“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.

I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.

And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?

I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.

I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA — Martin Luther King Jr. listens at a meeting of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a restaurant in Atlanta. The SCLC is a civil rights organization formed by Martin Luther King after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

America, Land of Guns and Nukes

What could be more American?

W.J. Astore

Today, I was reading some stats about guns in America in The Nation. Did you know gun sales went up 40% in 2020 when compared to 2019? Did you know 3.9 million guns were sold in America in a single month (June 2020), at the height of the BLM protests? Did you know that, according to the trade association for the U.S. firearms industry, Americans own roughly 434 million guns, including 20 million AR-15s and its variants? Did you know that roughly 43% of U.S. households have one or more guns, and that the U.S. has “the most heavily armed civilian population in the world”?

An old joke says that lots of guns make for a polite society, but I haven’t seen much politeness lately. I’ve seen plenty of guns, though.

Even as America dominates the world in gun ownership, we continue to have the world’s largest and potentially cataclysmic array of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence allegedly requires more than five thousand (5000!) nuclear warheads in the U.S. military’s inventory. (It’s quite possible that a mere fifty nuclear explosions could be enough to trigger a global nuclear winter.)

America is indeed exceptional: exceptional in its pursuit of overkill.

I know some might ask: What do guns have to do with nuclear warheads? I’d say that the gun has become the nuclear option in the home. Dead men tell no tales, whether shot or nuked.

Why do Americans feel so safe with so many guns? Why do they feel so safe with so many nuclear warheads? Why do we continue to buy more and more?

It’s a uniquely American form of madness. Or MADness, as in mutually assured destruction.

Look, before the 2nd Amendment crowd comes, packing heat, I’ve owned guns myself and have no objection to anyone who’s a hunter, or anyone who truly needs a gun and gets properly trained in its use. But what we’ve witnessed with the proliferation of guns in America over the last two decades is inexplicable in terms of sport hunting or any real need.

It’s been said we can’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud. What if there is, in essence, no difference? Dead is dead, whether shot or nuked, and 434 million guns have a “throw weight” and a “fallout” of their own.

Isn’t it time that Americans found a way to destroy their own weapons of mass destruction? At least we won’t have far to look for them.

Such a Sad Headline

Smith_&_Wesson_.357_Model_686_Plus
Flying off the shelves …

W.J. Astore

I saw this headline and story at the Guardian today: “Pandemic and protests spur Americans to buy guns at record pace.”

And it just made me sad.  Sad because Americans see guns as a security blanket.  Sad because guns are so expensive and also so easily misused.  Sad because more guns is really not the answer to anything.  Certainly not a pandemic.

Consider the sheer expense of guns.  A decent revolver, ammunition, a cleaning kit, and a few hours at your local gun range will likely cost at least a grand ($1000) at a time when almost half of Americans can’t meet an unexpected expense of $400.  Yet people find solace in a gun, a form of mental comfort, a sense of “I’m prepared.”  For Covid-19?  For peaceful protesters?  For the Purge?  Who knows?

It’s sad as well to recognize a gun in the home raises the risk of suicide by gun, and of course of accidental shootings.  Too many people buy a gun without knowing much about them — and how important it is to keep them secure, especially from children.

Look: I’ve owned guns and have shot everything from pellet pistols and rifles to Dirty Harry’s famed Smith & Wesson .44 magnum.  I can even cite Harry’s “Feel lucky, punk” line from memory.  I’m not anti-gun, but I am anti-hysteria.

Too many Americans are looking down the barrel of a loaded pistol for answers — and that’s neither the wisest nor safest place to look.  We need to strengthen our communities, not fortify our bunkers.  Buying more guns only does the latter.

Yesterday, an oldie by George Harrison came on my radio:

Give me love/Give me love/Give me peace on earth/Give me light/Give me life
Keep me free from birth/Give me hope/Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,/Heart and soul.

What he sang.  That’s what we need, America, not more guns.

Guns — Lots of Guns

neo
Keanu Reeves as Neo

W.J. Astore

In The Matrix, Neo (played memorably by Keanu Reeves) saves Morpheus by breaking into a heavily fortified facility guarded by special agents.  When asked what he’ll need to pull off this longshot rescue, Neo says, simply: “Guns — lots of guns.”  It could serve as America’s new national motto.  In God we trust?  No — guns.  And lots of them.  Somewhere north of 300 million guns are currently in private hands, enough to arm each and every American, the tall and the small, with at least one firearm.

So it’s not surprising when Donald Trump references Second Amendment rights.  (It seems the only amendment he knows.)  He likes to assert these “rights” are in danger of being curtailed, but gun sales are still booming and there are no serious efforts at gun control.

As one of my friends whose barbed humor I enjoy put it: “There is only one amendment — the second amendment.”  Mull that conundrum for a moment.

Back in World War II, America was known as the arsenal of democracy for all the weapons we supplied to allies like Britain and the Soviet Union.  Now it’s just an arsenal.

The brutal truth is we’re stuck with all these guns.  There is no political will to buy them back, even military-style assault weapons, and indeed what will there is centers on selling more of them.  Back in 2017, several articles appeared noting how black women were buying guns in increasing numbers.  Last week, NBC Washington ran a report on women of color becoming licensed gun owners in increasing numbers, partly as a response to police violence.  “Peace of mind” is bought with a gun.  Talk about racial and gender progress!

Speaking of the police, small wonder that America’s cops are edgy.  When we talk about police violence, which is all-too-real and all-too-deadly, a factor we should consider is the reality that America is awash in guns, making every police call a potentially deadly one.

So, as much as Trump tweets about “LAW&ORDER,” what really rules America is money — the money to be made by selling lots of guns and ammo, as well as the cultural ammo you can always count on when hippy-dippy liberals like me start rattling rhetorical sabers about gun control.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an AR-15 trumps both in this man’s America.

I’ve owned guns myself and have shot everything from a pellet pistol to a .44 magnum, but I’ve defunded my modest gun collection, so to speak.  I decided happiness is not a warm gun and that there are amendments other than the 2nd one.

For once you start shooting bullets, there’s no way to recall them.  And, as far as I know, the only guy able to dodge bullets is Keanu Reeves as Neo.

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

KCM_FlyOverHealthcareme0249
B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

Random Thoughts, Mostly Military

liberty
Lady Liberty?

W.J. Astore

Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:

  1. I recently read a book that argued the U.S. military loses its wars due to poor strategy and lack of understanding of “limited” war. It was a sophisticated book that cited the usual suspects in classical military theory, like Clausewitz. And it got me to thinking.  I don’t think the U.S. loses wars because of poor military theory or improper applications thereof.  And I don’t think the U.S. can win wars by better/smarter theory.  Rather, the wars the U.S. has been fighting since Korea should never have been started or joined to begin with.  Whether it’s Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan and Iraq today, these are and never were “winnable” wars.  Why?  Because they were unnecessary to U.S. national security.  And the only way to “win” such wars is to end them.

Unnecessary wars persist for many reasons.  A big one is profit, as in Ike’s military-industrial complex.  Perhaps as well these wars are sustained by a belief the U.S. military could win them if only the generals hit on the right strategy.  But there is no smarter way to win dumb wars.  You win them when you end them.

  1. War criminals. There’s been talk lately of President Trump wanting to pardon war criminals and how this would jeopardize order and discipline within the U.S. military.  But let’s leave aside low-level offenders (your sergeants and captains) and talk about high-ranking war criminals.  Indeed, what about the men who chose to go to war under false pretenses in the first place?  If you choose not to prosecute men like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, why pursue and prosecute the little guys?

I once read that the guilt for war crimes is greater the further you are from the crimes you effectively ordered.  Adolf Eichmann didn’t dirty his own hands; he was a deskbound murderer. And perhaps that’s the worst kind.

Historically, we recognize the moral and legal culpability of high-ranking murderers like Eichmann.  Should America’s top leaders be held responsible for the murderous results of wars that they launched?

  1. Lady Liberty Locked and Loaded. The U.S. routinely brags of having the best military ever while leading the world in weapons sales while professing to be an exceptional bastion of liberty.  And most Americans see no contradiction here.  Simultaneously, men like Trump continue to vilify brown-skinned immigrants as bringing violence to America.  Lady Liberty, in short, no longer lights her torch for the huddled masses.  If we (or the French?) were making her today, she’d carry a .44 magnum (or an assault rifle?) in place of a torch.  Do you feel lucky, immigrant punks?

Coincidence: A friend just sent me the Global Peace Index for the world’s 163 countries.  The USA ranks #128.  (Iceland is #1, followed by New Zealand at #2.)  USA!  USA!  USA!

  1. A friend of mine sent along a campaign ad for a woman running for Congress in Texas. Kim Olson is her name, and she has some good ideas.  But the ad itself is telling for different reasons.  A retired Air Force colonel, Olson appears in her military-issue flight jacket, complete with her rank, wings, and command patch, as she talks about being a “warrior.”

I have nothing against Colonel (retired) Olson.  She’s gutsy and committed to public service.  But enough of the “warrior” talk and enough with the military uniforms!  You didn’t see Ike campaigning for president while wearing a jacket with five stars on it.

  1. Readers of this blog may know that I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years. Impressive?  Not according to the Secretary of the Air Force.  In her words: “We are now boarding and recommending people for instructor duty and you’re not going to be able to do it unless you’re the best of the best. Historically, we didn’t value instructor duty. If you taught at Lackland or at the Air Force Academy or ROTC…that was kind of because you couldn’t get a better position and it was kind of a dead end. So now we’ve flipped that.”

I’ve changed my call sign to William “Dead End” Astore.  It has a nice ring to it.

In all seriousness, the military has always favored doers over thinkers.  Nowadays, you’re supposed to be a warrior, constantly doing…well…something.  So we’ve been doing something, usually the same thing, repeatedly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of results.  And history?  Who cares?  America’s military members barely know their own history, let alone the history of foreign peoples and cultures.

Incredibly, the military’s push for better education (defined as “intellectual overmatch,” I kid you not) is couched in terms of out-thinking the Russians and Chinese.  In other words, we’re doomed.

As I put it to a friend, “The services need to develop senior officers with depth and breadth of vision, but the system is designed to produce narrow-minded true believers.  It’s a little like trying to reform the Catholic church and its hierarchy of conservative, insular, cardinals and bishops.”

Or, as one of my Air Force friends put it, waxing satirically: “But you know, the problem really is that we don’t award enough ribbons, haven’t changed the uniform in a few years, and are allowing transgendered to serve while violating the rights of commanders by not allowing them to share [with subordinates] their [conservative Christian] faith.”

That’s enough random thoughts for this Thursday.  What say you, readers?

School as Prison

PrisonAir
A blueprint for America’s schools of the future?

W.J. Astore

Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.”  Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers.  And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons!  And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.

I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students.  (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.)  Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks.  Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”

One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality.  We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening.  We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally.  (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)

Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools?  They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms.  Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.

I don’t have a smart aleck observation here.  Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.