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Jewish World Review March 4, 2003 / 30 Adar I, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Colin Powell meets the teen-age press | Few Americans are busier than the Secretary of State; fewer still are burdened with formidable decisions. Yet, at 11 o'clock on the morning of Dec. 12, Colin Powell took time to meet with three teen-age journalists from Teen Ink, a national magazine with 4.5 million readers, which is distributed to thousands of schools and available online.

Published monthly from September to June by the nonprofit Young Authors foundation, Teen Ink is written entirely by teens for teens, encompassing politics, poetry, dating, depression, movie reviews, music, books and community service. There are also four Teen Ink books of the best writing and photos in the magazine since its founding in 1989.

Though Powell scheduled 15 minutes for these enterprising journalists, their questions intrigued him for twice that allotted time. For instance, asked whether "poverty could be something terrorists use to manipulate and recruit disadvantaged teens," Powell -- while recognizing that a child "without the basic necessities of life" could grow up with a propensity for violence -- made a very pertinent point:

"Osama bin Laden," he noted, "grew up rich," and all the terrorists who came here from Sept. 11 "were middle-class, educated people who had nothing to do with poverty."

Asked how he slept at night, knowing so many people in this world will be affected by his decisions, Powell said:

"I was trained in the military that no matter what's going on, get your rest, because you're the one who has to have a clear head." He added that he "usually takes home several hours of work, but I go home to a wife who's been there for 40 years. ... No matter what's going on in the office, what crisis is under way, who is calling me all kinds of names ... I go home to an environment that ... is a safe place."

Another Teen Ink reporter asked Powell about the wave of "zero tolerance" policies in schools that, for example, have resulted in kindergarteners being suspended for using their fingers as guns to play make-believe "cops and robbers." The reporter told Powell that a teen-age friend, participating in a school play, brought in a plastic meat cleaver as a prop -- and was suspended for several days.

Powell said that there are instances when zero tolerance "crosses the line of reasonableness ... so I tend to avoid zero tolerance, zero anything." He prefers putting "leaders in schools and other community activities who have a sense of balance and perspective and are not running afraid all the time."

A teen-ager told Powell that homophobia was more of a problem in her school than racism and religious intolerance. Since helping to institute the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, Powell said, he has been accused "of supporting homophobia. But I think it's a different matter with respect to the military, because you're essentially told who you're going to live with, who you're going to sleep next to."

But, he emphasized, "out of a military environment, in a school, I think any act that suggests someone should be discriminated against or in some way stigmatized because of their racial background, ethnic background or sexual preference is not appropriate.

"Here in the State Department, sexual preference makes no difference; we have gay ambassadors and employees throughout the department. I don't know who they are and it's none of my business, as long as they do their jobs."

Powell was told that the teen-ager's friends are worried about being vulnerable to terrorist acts. What can teen-agers do "to prevent these things from happening?"

"Teen-agers," he said, "should be on the lookout for young people who seem to be having the kinds of problems that, if addressed now, could avoid real problems. (But) I don't like to think that teen-agers in America are walking around afraid; they're more likely to get killed in a car accident than by terrorists.

"We are going to live with terrorism," he told the young journalists. "We've had it before, we'll have to live with it in a new way for many years to come, and we should protect ourselves and be alert, but we cannot walk around afraid."

He left the teen-agers with this: "I find too many young people don't fail often enough, and therefore, they're not learning, they're not experiencing something you have to experience early in life to be successful later. ... Maybe we don't put our young people in situations often enough where they're allowed to fail. When you fail, that's how you gain experience, and hopefully with enough experience, you don't fail as often, although I haven't proven that point yet."

That remark, according to the transcript on, was followed by laughter. After leaving, one of the teen-agers said she took that time with Colin Powell "to the corner of my mind where memories are never forgotten."

My reaction, as before I can across this interview, is that I'm glad Colin Powell is our Secretary of State. I wish he had been the principal at my high school.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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