It’s not every day high school students get to speak candidly with a U.S. senator. But some Rock Bridge students got that chance Tuesday.
Students in Matt Cone’s contemporary issues class hosted Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., for a discussion about some of the topics they have covered in class. The discussion focused primarily on the war on Iraq and the AIDS epidemic.
Talent opened the discussion with a brief summary of conditions in the Middle East that helped lead to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. He also praised the high school students.
“I think your generation gets slammed a lot,” he told the class. “(These kids) could be the best generation in U.S. history. I am so impressed. They have learned more, done more (than kids before).”
Tuesday’s discussion demonstrated that many high-school students know much more than they might let on. The students posed tough, hard-hitting questions to the senator, and he wasn’t afraid to answer candidly.
In regard to Iraq, Talent said the decision to invade was a good one. In his summary about recent history leading up to Sept. 11, he said that “ethnic rivalries had been frozen (after the Cold War). They thawed out after 9/11.”
Talent said he recognizes the United States is fighting a war on terrorism, not waging an unnecessary war in a single country.
“Before the terrorist attack, we had ongoing problems with (Saddam) Hussein,” Talent said. “The Clinton administration was moving toward doing something about Hussein.”
Asked about the justifications for moving into Iraq, Talent offered three main points.
“First, there was a history of Hussein as a threat to the U.S. Secondly, the connections he had with terrorists. He harbored and trained terrorists,” Talent said. “Finally, their history of developing weapons of mass destruction. They weren’t as close as we thought, but if one rogue nation has (them), we must assume that all of them have at least the capability, even to buy them.”
The senator told the students that many Iraqis “rebuke the vision of the terrorists” but feel Western practices are too “decadent and don’t fit with Islam.”
Talent conceded the United States is on the way to accomplishing its goals in Iraq, including an election planned for January, and shifting security to Iraq’s control in the near future, although he is unsure how long that might take.
“Maybe next year we will be able to reduce troop levels. I think we’re making progress,” he said.
The students challenged the senator with difficult questions.
“If you could go back in time, would you still go into Iraq,” one student asked.
“Absolutely,” the senator replied.
“Are we safer because we went into Iraq?” another inquired.
Members of Congress, Talent said, would “overwhelmingly” say yes.
In response to a question about the AIDS epidemic, Talent called it a major crisis and a challenge that both the country and the global community must work to overcome.
“It has such intensity there in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “It is decimating families and overwhelming the government’s ability to help.”
The United States is offering aid but can’t do it alone, Talent said. “We need help with funding.”
Talent said the United States has authorized $15 billion over five years, but money is not the most important aspect.
“We need to raise awareness here. Americans are humane people. Most people want to help,” he said.
Talent’s visit grew briefly somber as he mixed with students after his comments. One young woman shook his hand and told the senator that her brother is in Iraq. Talent praised the efforts of American soldiers, then listened as other students told of relatives who had served in the country.