The world is not a schoolyard We must go beyond simple analogies to explain this war to children
By GIL TROY
Montreal Gazette, Thursday, November 1, 2001, B3
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||The ability to analogize, to apply
lessons from one situation to another, is an essential
mark of intelligence. Experts who design intelligence
tests recognize this fact and have tortured generations
of young people examining students' abilities to identify
the correct analogy. But in these tests there are usually
three wrong answers for every right one. Being able to
spot the false analogies is as important as developing
the right one.
Unfortunately, we are suffering from a plague of promiscuous analogizing these days. Teachers, parents, community activists and columnists have been wondering how to raise peaceful children in a world at war. Some bemoan the Western world's failure to "turn the other cheek." Others have worried about the mixed message our children are receiving. Some foolishly wonder how we can chide our children when they resort to fisticuffs yet cheer Canada's and America's resort to war.
I wish these sentiments were correct. I wish all we ever really needed to know we had learned in kindergarten. But, alas, the world is not a schoolyard. Such analogies are not only false, they ignore historical precedent and the dangerous realities of the moment.
War is horrible, painful, best avoided, but sometimes necessary. Without a Civil War in the United States, the scourge of Southern slavery would have persisted for too many more years. During World War II, without a concerted response by British, Canadian and, eventually, American troops, among others, the Nazis would never have been defeated. Those who fought on the right side in that great conflict were neither warmongers nor schoolyard bullies. They were ordinary people rising to an extraordinary challenge - and saving civilization.
The sad truth is that Americans - and the rest of the West - spent much of the last decade turning the other cheek and neglecting the threat of Islamic terrorism. Islamic extremists first bombed the World Trade Centre in 1993. In August 1998, Osama bin Laden's people bombed two U.S. embassies simultaneously, in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 250 people. This act of war seems to have been launched by Hezbollah International with support from Iran, Sudan, and America's new "best friend," Pakistan. Only last year, bin Laden's people bombed an American ship docking peacefully, the USS Cole, in yet another act of war.
The tepid U.S. response to such events emboldened the terrorists. These moments, when the United States did not respond with all-out war, prove the essential backdrop to the tragedy of Sept. 11.
Moreover, facile analogies ignore the scale of the one-sided and uncalled-for Sept. 11 attacks. The stench of death still lingers in lower New York. Thousands remain missing and presumed dead, their bodies incinerated along with their hopes, their dreams and the happiness of their loved ones. The United States remains a country in mourning, a country where the simple act of living your daily life has become a heroic statement in the face of terror, where the normal celebrations of life are overshadowed by this plague of death and fear visited on the civilized world.
These events do pose many serious moral and pedagogical issues. When I recently flew on an airplane with my 6-year-old daughter, she asked if the airplane door was thick enough to keep "the tourists" out. After I corrected her she asked how we knew there were no terrorists on the airplane. My 4-year-old son has decided our house, which is brick, will not collapse, unlike the World Trade Centre. When I traveled to New York he warned me "not to get exploded."
While helping my children manage their quite rational fears, I, too, try to help them move beyond a black-and-white worldview. I do not want them wallowing in hate. I happily seized the opportunity offered by a recent newspaper photo of a Taliban defector to confuse my children, to show them that this Afghan who wore a turban and looked like Osama bin Laden had now joined the "good guys."
Yet, as I inject some complexity into the picture, I refuse to pretend everything is relative. I do not wish to insult my children's intelligence - or the intelligence of the twisted demons who oppose us. These last few weeks we have seen good, and we have experienced evil. And the kind of evil visited on the United States demands a systematic, sustained and, yes, violent response.
One of the hardest things to teach children - and obviously some adults too - is sensitivity to context. The same actions that are appropriate in one venue are not always appropriate in another. It is proper to disrobe on the way into the bathtub; it is wrong to parade down Sherbrooke St. naked.
In the schoolyard, we need to teach our children when and how to stand up to bullies, with the repertoire of techniques appropriate there. The field of international relations is a different venue, with its own challenges and its own language. To collapse the two into the same moral universe risks raising tone-deaf and naive children.
For too long, the West, not just the United States, allowed the Islamic extremists' one-sided war to fester. In response, the terrorists upped the ante repeatedly - until they reached the unimaginable, and rained down death from the sky. To cower in the face of this threat is to miss the central moral challenge presented to our generation, unwillingly, unhappily, ever so painfully.
We need to respond appropriately. We need to make war against Islamic terrorists and not against all of Islam. We need to make war against the Taliban, the current Afghan leadership, and not the Afghan people. We need to call on Islamic moderates to purge their community of the merchants of death, even as we protect the rights of all our fellow Islamic citizens. These are the nuanced decisions appropriate to the arena of international affairs, to the realm of statecraft. The United States, along with Canada, Great Britain and many of the other allies, has been doing a pretty impressive job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. As parents, as citizens, we need to understand and explain these completely justified actions. These days the questions are quite literally a matter of life and death.
- Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.
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