Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Pied Pipers of Palestine

Children are being actively recruited by the Palestinians into the cult of martyrdom, which encompasses both the extreme of suicide bombing and other, "milder" activities such as acting as shields for adult fighters.

These children do not get the idea to do this all on their own. Martyrdom is not a natural youthful aspiration, but the plasticity and vulnerability of the very young can be exploited to mold many of them in just that direction, much in the way advertising works to form habits.

There is a concerted effort in many parts of the Arab world--and, most particularly, among the Palestinians--to glorify martyrdom in such a way that it specifically appeals to children. There's nothing subtle or hidden about this campaign, which uses modern media tools in a most effective manner. It's another example of the pernicious power of the wedding of new technology with a medieval mindset.

Here, for example, is the transcript of a recent children's program (June 15, 2006) aired on Egyptian TV. The text is about as far from "Sesame Street" or "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" as it can be:

...when a child is brought up in a good home, and receives proper education in faith, he loves martyrdom, which becomes like an instinct for him. He can never give it up.

Augean Stables has a discussion of the phenomenon among the Palestinians, and notices a recent uptick in frequency. An article from the Jerusalem Post is quoted (which I will quote at some length because I think it's necessary to get the full flavor of the message, and its enormous and powerful appeal to children):

As Israel enters the northern Gaza Strip, there are signs that the Palestinian Authority plans to renew the tactic of sending children to the front lines as human shields to obstruct the IDF.

PA TV is again broadcasting music videos designed to brainwash young children into seeking death as shahids - martyrs for Allah. Shahada-promoting music videos were first broadcast thousands of times on Palestinian TV from 2000 through 2004.

One of the most sinister of these clips was broadcast twice last week, according to our research after a three-year absence. The clip features a child actor playing the most famous Palestinian child martyr, Muhammad al-Dura - whose death in a crossfire was broadcast to the entire world - calling to other Palestinian children to literally follow him to Child Martyrs’ Heaven.

“I am waving not to part but to say, ‘Follow me,’” is Dura’s invitation on the TV screen.

The children watching this video are then shown what awaits them if they join Dura in death. The video follows the child actor - “Dura” - joyously frolicking in heaven. He romps on the beach, plays with a kite and runs toward a Ferris wheel.

The children are being told that death in conflict with Israel will bring them into a child’s paradise. Muhammad al-Dura is already in this paradise, tranquil and fun-filled.

This call to children to seek death, coming from the child who has turned into a Palestinian hero, and broadcast to their children by PA TV, is one of the most odious examples of exploitation of children witnessed on PA TV.

THE WORDS sung by the popular singer Aida are as insidious as the pictures. The earth is described as yearning for the children’s death - “its thirst quenched by the gush of blood flowing from the youthful body.”

I would hope that even the strongest proponents of the Palestinian cause would recognize the vileness and moral bankruptcy of this particular campaign. My guess, though, is that some of them will not, and will instead find ways to excuse it and/or blame it on Israel.

(And, by the way, the evidence is nearly overwhelming that al-Durah, the child martyr exploited in these abominable ads, was either killed by Palestinian forces, or that the entire al-Durah incident was faked. Although that's important, it's also irrelevant to the subject at hand, which is undoubtedly true: the purposeful recruitment of children into active participation in the cause.)

Movements have often tried to indoctrinate children, and even sometimes used them as traps. In recent memory, this was done during the Vietnam War by the Vietcong, to great effect. Recruiting children is not only a tool for using scarce resources, but a sort of moral jujitsu; a way to turn the "softness" of the opposition--i.e., soldiers' reluctance to cold-bloodedly kill children--into a way to cause them to feel remorse when they are tricked into doing so against their will (or, if that fails, into appearing as though they've killed children, as with al-Durah).

Here's a description of the way it worked for the Vietcong:

A member of the Viet Cong would later confirm that: "Children were trained to throw grenades, not only for the terror factor, but so the government or American soldiers would have to shoot them. Then the Americans feel very ashamed. And they blame themselves and call their soldiers war criminals." It was not rare for small children to wave an American patrol into a booby trap or minefield. Additionally, the Viet Cong would use women and children as lethal ploys or ruses to lead Americans into deadly ambushes.

I haven't been able to discover how these children were recruited. But I doubt it was the same sort of slick media blitz that's occurring with the Palestinians. One has to reach far back into medieval times to something like the Children's Crusade to find a campaign approaching this one, and even then the comparison is not really apt. The children there were merely responding to the general call for rescuing the Holy Lands, not one specifically aimed at and targeting children. And in fact, the Children's Crusade was actually a sort of grass-roots mass movement led by children themselves, all apparently under twelve.

At any rate, that was in the year 1212. Most assuredly, television was not involved, nor did the Children's Crusade have the blessing of the Catholic Church. But current-day calls in the Arab world to children to become martyrs to the cause are on government-run and sanctioned media, purposely orchestrated and planned by adults (the adult in the Egyptian excerpt linked above is identified as "a preacher at the Egyptian ministry of religious endowment," for example).

As I was reading all of this, some sort of memory, some association, began stirring within me. Something from literature? Folklore? Poetry? History? Then it came to me, and it turned out the answer is "all of the above:" the story of "The Pied Piper."

As a child, I'd heard the tale, as did most of us. I also owned a comic book based on the famous Browning poem on the subject, and it became one of my favorites. I read it over and over, charmed by the rhymes, but frightened by the disturbing, ambiguous, and powerful ending. Folktales and fairy tales are often dark, but this seemed one of the very darkest of all. There was no redemption at the conclusion, just children disappeared into the side of a mountain, and devastated and bereft adults left to grieve.

Do you remember the story of the Piper (and see this for speculation about the historical incident of 1284--including, among other things, whether a children's crusade might have been involved--that inspired it)?

It goes like this: leaders of the medieval town of Hamelin, plagued by rats, hire a magical piper to rid the city of the pests. But when he succeeds in seductively using his music to lead the vermin into the sea, where they drown, the people of Hamelin renege on their deal and fail to "pay the piper." In anger, he takes revenge on the townfolk, and what a revenge it is! The Piper plays his pipe again--a different tune--and this time lures the all the children in the town to a door in the side of a mountain that mysteriously opens up and closes behind them. They are never heard from again. Only a few handicapped children survive to tell the tale; in my comic book version it was a lame boy on crutches who couldn't catch up with the others.

One of the ambiguities of the story is what actually happens to the children. It's clear that the Piper's music is a sweet song, promising wonderful and glorious experiences if the children follow him. The fact that this is a lie, and that they are following him to death, is implied but never unequivocally stated, and as a susceptible child myself I puzzled over the conundrum and the mystery. Would I, too, have followed? Was the little lame boy blessed or cursed in not having gone with the others?

As an adult, I think the answer is clear that the Piper was up to no good. But as a child, I wasn't quite sure, and I was well aware of the seductive power of the Piper's promise.

Many parts of Browning's poem are funny, particularly the earlier passages, and the rhyme scheme is inherently light. But this part chilled me then, and it chills me still--his description of the way the beautiful music called the children, and what it spoke to them:

...Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter....

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say,--

"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I'm bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles' wings:
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!"

The similarities, I think, are clear, even in the prominent use of music in present-day Palestinian child recruitment videos. And I think it's no coincidence that, in the one featuring the child actor playing al-Durah, he is shown saying, Pied Piper-like "Follow me."

How to stop the Pied Pipers of Palestine? The first step is to recognize, publicize, and condemn what they are doing. This is my small part in that effort.

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