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The Year of the Child (in Trouble): We-Are-Not-Them Exceptionalism

Creating a global lost generation

Children in a refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo: Reuters)

Children in a refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo: Reuters)

Halfway through 2018, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski hurled a mother-to-mother dagger at Ivanka Trump. How, during the very weeks when the headlines were filled with grim news of child separations and suffering at the U.S.-Mexico border, she asked, could the first daughter and presidential adviser be so tone-deaf as to show herself hugging her two-year-old son? Similarly, six months earlier, she had been photographed posing with her six-year-old daughter in the glossiest of photos. America had, in other words, found its very own Marie Antoinette, gloating while others suffered. “I wish,” Brzezinski tweeted at Ivanka, “you would speak for all mothers and take a stand for all mothers and children.”

A subtle but pervasive sense that this country and its children can remain separated from, and immune to, the problems currently being visited upon children around the world is, in fact, widespread.

The problem, however, wasn’t just the heartlessness and insensitivity of the first daughter, nor was it simply the grotesque disparity between those mothers on the border and her. The problem was that the sensibility displayed in those photos—that implicit we-are-not-them exceptionalism—was in no way restricted to Ivanka Trump. A subtle but pervasive sense that this country and its children can remain separated from, and immune to, the problems currently being visited upon children around the world is, in fact, widespread.

If you need proof, just watch a night of television and catch the plentiful ads extolling the bouncy exuberance of our children—seat-belted into SUV’s, waving pennants at sports events, or basking in their parents’ praise for doing homework. If you think about it, you’ll soon grasp the deep disparity between the image of children and childhood in the United States and what’s happening to kids in so many other places on Earth. The well-ingrained sense of exceptionalism that goes with such imagery attests to a wider illusion: that the United States can continue to stand apart from the ills plaguing so much of the world.

In truth, the global reality of children in crisis may be the most pressing issue we as a nation need to confront if we are ever to understand that global ills can’t be kept eternally outside our borders, not with first-daughter hugs, not with a self-centered version of tunnel vision, not even with a “great, great wall.”

From north to south, east to west, children around the world are suffering, increasingly unsafe, and preyed upon in ever larger numbers. For years now, their deaths from disease, deprivation, starvation, and conflicts of every sort have been on the rise. They are increasingly fodder for weapons of war. This is the case, disturbingly, for countries in which the United States has been deeply involved in its post-9/11 global war on terror, which over the last 17 years has unsettled a significant part of the planet and badly affected children in particular.

In the first three-quarters of 2018, for instance, 5,000 children were reportedly killed or maimed in war-torn Afghanistan where the U.S. still has 14,000 troops and countless private contractors. Save the Children estimates that up to 85,000 children under the age of five may have died of starvation in a Yemen being torn apart by civil war and, according to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, at least 1,248 children have been killed and as many wounded in U.S.-backed Saudi air strikes there since 2015.

By the end of 2017, at least 14,000 children had been reported killed in the war in Syria.

By the end of 2017, at least 14,000 children had been reported killed in the war in Syria, “by snipers, machine guns, missiles, grenades, roadside bombs and aerial bombs.” In addition, as journalist Marcia Biggs showed in an award-winning PBS NewsHour special, vast numbers of children have been maimed and, having lost limbs, struggle to live with (or without) prosthetics, while their schools have been reduced to rubble.

Nor is such devastation limited to the Middle East. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die daily worldwide due to starvation. In Africa, violence and hunger threaten children in increasing numbers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, millions of children are reportedly “at risk of severe acute malnutrition.”

The Making of a Lost Generation

When it comes to children, those who survive the rigors of our present world often find themselves homeless, stateless, and parentless. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that the number of displaced people, both those who have fled across national boundaries as refugees and those still in their own countries, reached a staggering 68.5 million by the end of 2017. According to UNICEF, nearly half of that displaced population are children, an estimated 30 million of them. Many of those children are starving, without access to medical care or basic human needs like toilets and clean water, not to speak of schools or a future. Surprising numbers of them, as in Iraq, are in refugee or internal displacement camps. As Ben Taub points out, reporting for the New Yorker on post-ISIS Iraq, many such children have “been abandoned or orphaned by the war.”

According to UNICEF, nearly half of that displaced population are children, an estimated 30 million of them.

In addition, living in areas torn by violence and warfare, those children have often witnessed atrocities on a mass scale. Inside and outside the camps where so many of them are now living, youngsters are subject to rape, violence, and abuse. In Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places, such children have sometimes had siblings and parents killed right before their eyes. According to Taub, those in Iraq who are suspected of having relatives in ISIS, or an affiliation with ISIS, are often brutally punished or even executed. Human Rights Watch reports that the security services in Iraqi Kurdistan are using “beatings, stress positions, and electric shock on boys in their custody” between the ages of 14 and 17 in order to elicit confessions about ties to ISIS.

In a brilliant and searing new documentary, ISIS, Tomorrow: The Lost Souls of Mosul, filmmakers Francesca Mannocchi and Alessio Romenzi report on children who survived three years of Islamic State rule in that Iraqi city, significant parts of which now lie in ruins. Many of them are presently held in camps that are, in Taub’s term, “de facto prisons,” along with other alleged family members of ISIS fighters. The filmmakers document the psychological scars of being held in such places, as well as of having been subjected to the indoctrination and training offered by ISIS. Having been brutalized, they are full of anger and the desire for revenge. As one young man in the film declares, “May God do the same to them as they did to us.”

In other words, in Iraq and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, new generations of terror and suffering are already in the offing as the terrorized children of the present nightmares grow up.

Mia Bloom, co-author of the forthcoming book Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, suggests that the authorities in such lands should focus on creating “a multi-pronged approach that addresses the psychological trauma suffered by the children from watching executions, in addition to the effects of having participated in acts of violence.” Many in the human rights community agree with her. In the harsh conditions of those countries, wracked by conflict and collapse, however, theirs is but a dream.

In reality, such children are regularly ostracized as permanent enemies of the state. They are, as Taub, Mannocchi, and Romenzi show, a lost generation in the most literal sense of the term and that loss will, in the end, affect us all.

The cycle of violence is only being strengthened, thanks to an uptick in the recruitment of children for warfare.

And no end is in sight when it comes to the damaging, and then further use, of those damaged young people. Quite the opposite, the cycle of violence is only being strengthened, thanks to an uptick in the recruitment of children for warfare. In Yemen, Sudan, and Libya, for example, the recruitment of child fighters has been on the rise for several years. Meanwhile, to carry on their war in Yemen, the Saudis have also been recruiting—quite literally, buying, in fact—soldiers from the Sudan, “desperate survivors of the conflict in Darfur.” Many of them are, reportedly, teenagers as young as 14.

And such recruitment is in no way confined to the Greater Middle East. In Somalia and Ukraine, for example, alarming reports of child recruits have recently come to light. In Ukraine, children as young as eight years old are being trained to shoot to kill and desensitized to the act. CBS News recently quoted one of their adult trainers this way: "We never aim guns at people. But we don't count separatists, little green men, occupiers from Moscow, as people. So we can and should aim at them."

Such attempts to prey upon adrift, often hungry, and desperate young people in an effort to have yet more arms at the ready is a prescription for long-term global violence. And terror groups don’t hesitate to use the young either. In her work on children recruited into such wars, for instance, Bloom notes that the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram is notorious for using young girls on suicide missions, while, in the wake of its rise in 2014, ISIS recruited “hundreds, if not thousands, of children for military engagement.” So, in fact, has the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Childhood, a Wasting Asset

Make no mistake: in the long run, the United States will not remain untouched by such violence. Unfortunately, in this century American officials and policymakers have remained convinced that the only way this country can be protected against the turmoil and chaos engulfing the larger world is via a military-first foreign policy. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently put it, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, “I want to fight the war in the enemy’s backyard, not ours. That’s why we need a forward-deployed force in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for a while to come.” In this, he caught the spirit of an approach embraced by so many in the Bush and Obama administrations, even as American forces continued to unsettle those other “backyards” in significant ways.

As the first 18 years of this century have shown, reality defies this false sense of security, which contends that it is possible to keep the problems of our world at arm’s length. As the 9/11 attacks should have shown us, in a global age of communications, travel, trade, and the delivery of the weapons of war, the spawning of a homeless, stateless, angry generation is guaranteed to create unbearable future problems, even here in the United States. The only way to limit such future damage isn’t the walling off of America, but some kind of compassionate attention to those young people now.

When it comes to creating bitter futures, the Trump administration’s treatment of children at the border is of a piece with the larger global attack on them. While on a smaller scale than in the Greater Middle East and beyond, acts against the young at our southern border certainly should evoke their counterparts elsewhere. In December and January, for example, the first deaths of children were recorded at American border detention centers.

In addition, widespread neglect and obvious acts of cruelty continue to define those centers. Tots are left in soiled diapers and otherwise unsanitary conditions, while children of all ages are often separated from their mothers and fathers, initially housed in bitterly cold jail-like conditions, and terrified about what might lie in store for them and their parents. Recently, a video of workers slapping, pushing, and dragging around young immigrants at a detention center run by Southwest Key Programs in Arizona was made public. Similarly, a jury found guilty the first of two Southwest Key employees charged with sexually abusing children (at two of that company’s centers) last September.

Giving up on those children and turning a blind eye to the harm being visited on them is a formula for disaster not just in the world but at home as well.

And the mistreatment of immigrant children on the border is just a sign of the times. Among U.S. citizens, there is trouble as well. In an ever more unequal society, 21% of children in this country now live below the official poverty line, a rate that is the highest among the world’s richest countries. In 2009, a Department of Justice report found that more than 60% of American children witnessed or were the targets of violence “directly or indirectly.” Won't such abuse lead to a version of the resentment, anger, and damage that the rest of the world is struggling to contain? In the words of the Department of Justice, “Children’s exposure to violence... is often associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm” and can lead to a “cycle of violence.”

Giving up on those children and turning a blind eye to the harm being visited on them is a formula for disaster not just in the world but at home as well. In fact, such children should become a far more important American priority than so many of the other national security expenditures we now regularly fund without a second thought. Isn’t it time for the United States to set some other kind of example for the rest of the world than those terrible detention centers in our southern borderlands? Shouldn’t Washington make the rescue of children a global priority and pioneer new ways to help them regain viable lives? (A first step in that direction might be to create an ambassadorship for the world’s children as a way to attest to an American refusal to give up on childhood in this or any other generation.)

For her part, Ivanka Trump could start posing with refugee children, ones seeking asylum, or even American children suffering from poverty, neglect, and violence and so send quite a different Instagram message to the world—namely, that childhood is precious and needs to be protected everywhere.

Admittedly, in the Trump years, this will remain a fantasy of the first order. But keep in mind that to ignore the global crisis of childhood will someday bring it home to roost here, too. We-are-not-them exceptionalism will, in the end, prove just another kind of fantasy. In the meantime, as legal expert Jason Pobjoy notes in his book The Child in International Refugee Law, “Childhood is a wasting asset—there are no second chances.”

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Karen Greenberg

Karen Greenberg

Karen J. Greenberg is the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. She is the author of The Least Worst Place, Guantanamo's First 100 Days (Oxford University Press). She is also the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, among other works.

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