Mall of an America torn
At the Minnesota landmark, teens have deep reservations about war
Third in the series Through kid's eyes: Children look at war.Skip to next paragraph
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Music screams from inside. T-shirts on the wall read "Bad Example" and "I Bite Back." The saleskids at this goth-punk store have hair so bright it's more like plumage.
But behind the counter, Ryan Kelsey is gentle. When two teen guys approach, 12 cents short to buy a sticker, the high school senior helps them find the change.
He'd be in Iraq if he could.
Out in the mall's hallway, D'Andre Colston and Lancion Gregory are draped over a railing, watching fine girls lighting on benches below.
The high-schoolers rode half an hour on the bus from Brooklyn Park to get here. It's the weekend kicking spot, they say, the best place to talk to girls anywhere near Minneapolis.
They're afraid of being sent to the Gulf to fight for - as they say - the "punk" who calls himself their president.
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If this were a year or two from now, these could be the people fighting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Demographically, the mall's Midwestern teens are a near-perfect mirror of today's US armed forces: A little less than a quarter are African-American, 10 percent are Latino, and a smaller percentage are Asian. Almost none are wealthy.
Most teens in this community stress the need to support the US troops now in Iraq. But beyond that, opinions about the war split down racial and ethnic lines, with all the non-Anglo kids opposing it. Pro or con, though, virtually every teen expressed deep reservations about the current conflict - often stemming from a personal distrust of President Bush.
"I've been through ROTC in high school. I was going to be in the Air Force until I broke my leg," Ryan says. "I'm not really a fan of being sent into a war, but instead of seeing my best friends go, I'd rather go.
"But at the same time, I feel bad for the Iraqi people," he says, as buttons with messages like "I ™ Metal" and "I'm a mess" swing against his Nine Inch Nails shirt, "This could end up like Vietnam again. For me, it's the way we're going about it. Bush just seems like he's trying to do what his dad forgot to do."
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At 4.2 million square feet, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is by far the largest shopping center in the nation. Since war began in Iraq more than two weeks ago, the mall has stepped up security. A yellow-vested guard with a walkie-talkie now watches each entrance, and pairs of armed guards stroll the halls. There's talk around town that the mall could be a terrorist target.
"I been real worried about that," says Lancion. "I mean, it is the biggest thing in Minnesota."
But despite these fears, inside the mall, signs of war vanish. The displays of patriotism that sprang up in places like New York after Sept. 11 are absent. Walking the halls, you could be anywhere in America, any time in the past decade, swaddled in a sameness of retail chains, fast foods, and Muzak.
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In the food court, Osmund Dris, Minh Mai, and Mike Tran are huddled glumly over cartons of Johnny Rockets chili cheese fries. The boys only really come to the mall to find out when the next break-dance competition will be, they say, but there hasn't been one in a while.
The three say at school, kids are trying to forget, to leave the war alone. Yet a teacher from Minh and Osmund's high school is serving in Iraq. "I think in Baghdad," Osmund says. "The bridges," adds Minh. "He's a commander for the bridges."
"Or the desert," throws in Mike. "The whole thing is desert," Minh corrects.
Osmund's parents were born in the Philippines; Mike's, and Minh himself, in Vietnam. Minh says his dad has been sitting in front of the TV for the past four days, riveted. Mike's big brother is 17, and he's been getting recruiting mail from the Army. It frightens him. "He's crying," Minh says quietly.
"That's what you would do," argues Mike.
"I'd cry so much," agrees Minh. "I'd never sign up. I'm scared of dying."
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Saturdays are crazy at Glamour Shots, and worse at Glamour Kids. Blotchy-faced preteens emerge from makeup booths for bouts of nerve-, vanity-, and expense-induced sobbing. Lines back up into the floral arrangements. Curling irons break down.