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.

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.

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

Caitlin Davies, working the counter, says most days at the mall she doesn't even have time to think about war. But at school in nearby Apple Valley, it's a different story. TVs in the halls are tuned to war news, and though the Pledge of Allegiance is optional, more people are saying it. "But I don't know if it's necessarily to support the war," the high school junior says. "Most people I know are supporting troops."

Caitlin's uncle has already shipped out. Her older brother, newly married, is worried he could be called up any day.

Even so, Caitlin says, "I really have no reservations about [the war]." Even the killing of civilians, though sad, might be necessary, she says, looking absently over the heads of aggressively coiffed little girls, because "some of their civilians really support Saddam - like they'd do anything to keep him there, even kill us. "I guess if there were really innocent civilians who got killed, though, that would be bad," she concedes.

* * *

So far, Oscar and Llewellyn Boyle-Mejia can only do ollies, the most basic skateboarding jump. But practicing those has just about worn out Llewellyn's boarding shoes, and today, the brothers have fought their way through a store thick with gear-heads to find him some new ones.

They would never go to war for this country, declare the junior and eighth-grader, who have dual citizenship with Mexico.

They've been hearing war stories since they were little. One is about their great uncle, who served in Vietnam and was "the only one to come back alive from his missions three times," explains Llewellyn. He's "never really gotten better from that."

The other is about their grandfather, a chemist, who quit the Army after the bombing of Hiroshima, when "they wanted him to make biological weapons just in case, and he wouldn't do it," Oscar says.

Even so, the boys' cousin is now completing his Marine Corps training in California. "He joined 'cause he wants to go to college," says Oscar. "He just doesn't like the thought of war."

* * *

Ken Koosmen does, though. He and a friend, Park Sanderson, have spent the afternoon on the arcade's shooting games.

"I'd get shipped out today," the 16-year-old declares, sporting a necklace of chunky yellow stars. "I actually have a fascination with going over there [to fight]." He'd be good at it, he thinks - not because of his prowess with video games, which he dismisses as unrealistic, but because he's good at paintball. "Paintball's a lot like actual combat," he explains. "One hit and you're dead."

Park is less sure about going to war: He hasn't been playing paintball very long. "I'm not too good yet," he says. "I'm not looking to take a bullet" in the behind.

Ken looks disgusted. "You don't take it there. That'd be a disgrace. You take it here," he says, pointing to his heart.

* * *

Crystal Austin and her cousin Jordan stake out a bench from which to consider their strategy. The girls want to see the movie "Head of State," but it's PG-13, and Jordan, who prefers that her last name not be used, is only 12.

"Ooh, I'm scared," Crystal says. But not about the movie. Her mom's fiancé is serving.

The 10th-grader says she doesn't trust the president's reasons for sending him to Iraq. "I feel like Bush don't care about others but himself."

"He only cares about the rich people," Jordan interjects, "but everybody isn't rich as him."

Jordan is intensely aware of Washington politics. She cites Mr. Bush's differences with House majority leader Tom DeLay and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle with a facility that far more senior analysts might envy. America's biggest problem, she says, is the nation's conviction that it's the center of the world.

"When the trade towers collapsed, I was sad. But it wasn't that tragic, 'cause look at the terrible stuff we do to other countries. Up against that, 3,000 [killed] isn't even that many," she says. Then she has to run, to try to sneak into that PG-13 movie.

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