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Festung High School

A return to the bunker in an age of insanity

Aspiring architects may want to get ahead of the curve as our great leader promotes the “hardening” of schools rather than consider even the most prosaic legislative attempts to regulate private gun ownership. Aside from defensive measures like mottes and baileys, schools might be designed, with the existential threats of the modern age in mind, to include morgues and trauma centers.

It wouldn’t be the first time a grade school incorporated a morgue. To find that, we only need to look back to the last time the political system was so willing to embrace total insanity as a preferred alternative to admitting that its priorities might be wrong. 

You can safely describe yourself as in the middle of nowhere when using the nearest large city as a geographic point of reference involves a phrase like “Four hours northeast of El Paso.” But that is where Artesia, New Mexico, lies, forty miles south of the alien tchotchke thunderdome of Roswell.

Artesia has a monument to the moment at which Cold War nuclear policy officially lost its goddamn mind, a shrine to the limits of saber rattling and belligerence as Washington Consensus foreign policy. While the world watched the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in horror, the residents of Artesia were busy constructing the town’s new elementary school—entirely underground.

Living within fallout distance of White Sands Missile Range and Walker Air Force Base led Artesians to conclude that since nuclear holocaust was inevitably going to be a part of modern life, it made sense to take a two birds, one stone approach to a new school and a survival bunker.

Every proposal coming from the White House involves making schools more like prisons, military bunkers, or both.

They took the next logical step based on the twisted reasoning of Mutual Assured Destruction and concluded that soon everyone would be living underground anyway. Attending school in a windowless underground concrete-and-asbestos sarcophagus would be good preparation for the future adults had made for the kids. Soviet propaganda accused the school of “indoctrinating students to the inevitability of nuclear war,” and, well, it’s hard to find the lie there.

But what alternative was there? Surely it was preferable, the Very Serious People of the day concluded, to die in a global nuclear war than to make any accommodations to the Soviet Union.

Looking at current Republican proposals to “address” mass shootings in schools, the parallels are obvious. Literally every proposal coming from the White House or the farcical Republican Main Street Caucus School Safety Working Group involves making schools more like prisons, military bunkers, or both. Under the thin veneer of vague promises of counselors and mumble mumble Mental Health they quickly get to the real business of metal detectors, scanners, physical searches, gates, and armed security personnel. Even the feigned attempts at non-brute force solutions can’t avoid sounding creepy, with references in bills to “anonymous reporting systems” and “mobile security apps.”

Sounds reasonable. Or, you know, we could stop letting anyone with a pulse arm himself to the teeth with weapons capable of firing NATO-caliber rifle ammunition as fast as the trigger can be pulled.

Never mind that putting more security personnel in schools results only in accelerating the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color. To date putting people with badges in schools has stopped zero shootings but has led to tens of thousands of arrests, tasings, and citations that—shockingly—disproportionately target African-American students. Arming teachers similarly promises to do little beyond upping the already substantial body count of unarmed young black men being shot by adults who “felt threatened” in a very not-racist, stand-your-ground sort of way.

All of this is insane. And the insanity is undisguised. It is laid bare for everyone to contemplate. When the Abo school was conceived and built America was at a pivotal point in the Cold War. One future accepted the inevitability of nuclear war and constructed a new kind of post-apocalyptic, survivalist, militaristic life around that fact. The other future was one in which rational humans decided that nuclear holocaust was not inevitable but was in fact something that the political leaders of different nations chose to risk for their own reasons. And just as they chose that, they could choose something else.

The Cuban Missile Crisis gave the saner portions of the American and Soviet political-military establishments enough of a scare that everyone gave up on the idea of building underground bunkers and surviving like mole people. Instead, the focus shifted toward reducing tension and improving the ability to avoid a nuclear exchange rather than building command and control institutions that seemed eager to get the ICBMs in the air expeditiously.

Future generations will wonder why it did not occur to us sooner that shooting sprees are not like thunderstorms.

The Abo School, in short, was a monument to a future Americans repudiated. It was drawn up and founded on a set of assumptions that did not hold: that we had to accept as inevitable something that was eminently preventable if only our mindset could evolve. As we built underground shelters with morgues to handle the irradiated corpses of our classmates, the collective unconscious had a moment of clarity when it dawned on Americans that this was a choice, and that we did not in fact have to live this way.

Future generations will look at the coming wave of security oriented, “hardened” school architecture in the same way, wondering why we blithely accepted that people will bring semiautomatic weapons to schools to kill a bunch of children and feebly attempted to build our physical environment around that inevitability. They will wonder why it did not occur to us sooner, as it will eventually, that shooting sprees are not like thunderstorms and we are not powerless to prevent them from happening.

A coda: the Abo school was closed at the end of the 1995 school year due to the exorbitant costs of maintenance and asbestos remediation involved in keeping an underground structure up to code. It is now used for storage and, fittingly, twice-monthly drills by federal law enforcement officers to practice responding to active shooters in schools.