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The Threat of War has Terrified Young People - But It Has Also Radicalized Us
Published on Saturday, March 8, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Nothing to Smile About
The Threat of War has Terrified Young People - But It Has Also Radicalized Us
by Merope Mills

Amid the comparisons of the current conflict with Iraq to the 1956 Suez crisis and Chamberlain's 1939 appeasement, two more recent dates came to my mind - not for their political parallels, but for their poignancy. In 1989, I was 12 years old: too young to fully understand the significance of that date, but old enough to commit to memory the faces of East Berliners as the iron curtain came down.

From 1998, a picture symbolizing the Good Friday agreement sticks in my head. It showed a diminutive Irish girl riding on the shoulders of a British soldier. Both of them wore those exquisite smiles that capture the hope and possibility of a lasting peace.

There is a certain solace in thinking about them just now. Given the choice, I find it much more comforting to dwell on the optimistic end of a turbulent period of history, as opposed to the terrifying beginning of a new one.

Immediately after September 11, there were predictions that our lives would never be the same again. Then came the backtracking - perhaps it was just America that had changed. It had come into the world, people said, and been forced to think more globally and sensitively (a premonition that is sadly wide of the mark).

But 18 months on, we feel the consequences more than ever. Fear and instability are the norm and the words "terrorism" and "war" are never out of the papers. As someone in their 20s, who grew up during peacetime, they are arresting differences.

Ricin, anthrax, dirty bombs, suicide bombs - suddenly these words have become part of our everyday vocabulary, alongside the belief that we will witness one or more of these attacks in our lifetime.

About a month after September 11, I had a job convincing one of my friends to come to a London nightclub with me, so scared was she of it being a target. I laughed at her paranoia, yet after the Bali bombing her stance doesn't seem so ridiculous.

But it is not just a selfish fear of our own safety that is consuming young as well as old. Equally frightening is the idea of America using the World Trade Center attacks to storm ahead with unjustified offensives - its huge, hegemonic footprints crashing over the world map.

Last week, thousands of school pupils walked out of classes to picket Downing Street and protest against the war. At universities, students are far more numerous in their opposition to a planned attack on Iraq than they ever were against tuition and top-up fees. Radicalism is no longer a luxury for the young.

And our prime minister recognizes that. He may have tested our apathy to the limit since his election, but suddenly Tony Blair realizes he must reassure the young. Hence his appearance on MTV this week, where he took an hour trying to convince a largely skeptical audience of 16 to 24-year-olds that war is the only answer.

The change in attitude is surprising only because this is a generation that has so far shown all the signs of resisting the onset of responsibility. Our approach to life has been carefree and hedonistic; our prime concern being to enjoy life to the full. Witness the unstoppable growth of gap years and the host of young people who were lost from the last census, presumed partying on foreign shores. Without cold war missile crises to haunt our childhood memories, we have been fortunate to live without the fear of impending doom.

Until now. Armageddon was mooted by former prime minister John Major. But it was Kenneth Clarke who captured the fear of how this war will shape our future: "The next time a large bomb explodes in a western city, or an Arab or Muslim regime topples and is replaced by extremists, the government must consider the extent to which the policy contributed to it."

So here we are, us twenty-somethings, facing an asymmetrical war that targets people we have nothing against; facing threats from cultures we don't really understand; and dangers we can't protect ourselves from.

We do not deny the possibility of a decent outcome in Iraq. But beyond that? It will deepen the clash of Christian-Muslim cultures and usher in a world where war and retaliation will be cyclical and inevitable facets of our lives.

How long will it be before we can wear intoxicated smiles of permanent peace? Will it be 10, 20 years from now? Perhaps we'll be parents of children who have never known what it's like not to live in fear. Invading Iraq might solve one problem, but it will create myriad others. Problems we will be witnessing for the best part of our lives.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003


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