When Will Somebody Stop Thinking of the Children?


At Spiked, Brendan O'Neill has a characteristically interesting take on the way kids make such top-notch war propagandists:

Increasingly, the Middle East is viewed through the eyes of a child. In culture, media and politics, images and stories of Lebanese, Palestinian and increasingly Israeli children, too, are dominant. There are films, both documentaries and fictional features, that tell the story of the Middle East from 'the children's view', which provide, according to one gushing report, a 'deeply humanistic insight into the complexities of the Middle East conflict that political analysis or frontline news coverage often lacks' (4). Journalists and photographers on the ground constantly seek out children, whether it's Palestinian kids throwing stones or Israeli kids weeping at the funeral of a loved one killed in a suicide bombing. Even the West's political interventions in the Middle East are increasingly conducted in the name of children. UN officials and NGOs chastise Israel for failing to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its treatment of young Palestinians, as if Israel is an errant father and the Palestinians its wide-eyed charges (5).

This infantilisation of Israel, Palestine and now Lebanon shows the true relationship between the West and the Middle East today. It suggests that what really motivates Western media and political interest in the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Lebanon conflicts is less political solidarity, or anything to do with liberty or justice, but more a vicarious politics of pity. Images and stories of distressed children allow Western commentators and viewers to feel simultaneously upset and superior; it gives them both an emotional kick and makes them feel like responsible adults who wish to care for these damaged children far, far away.

This is a legitimate point, but I have to ask: when were things any different? I'd say the new characteristic in the latest Lebanon war was that all those Beirut hipsters provided something usually lacking in the dead-child-heavy coverage of Arab-Israeli conficts: a substantial number of westernized Arab sophistos with good English skills who were able to do talking-head duties on the news networks. The icons of Arab self-pity—dusty dead children, shrieking old women in chadors, trashed extended-family homes—have been with us since the beginning of time, and have never produced much emotional effect on American audiences. It was the large numbers of American-looking people on the receiving end of the Israeli offensive that made this event different. The argumentum ad puerum is by contrast an old chestnut that gets rolled out because it's easy to use. O'Neill sees a sinister purpose in all this:

The new child's-eye view of the Middle East also has the effect of reducing the debate about the future of the region to the level of a childish spat. Some argue that interviewing and photographing children captures the essence of the Middle Eastern conflict in a way that news reportage or analysis fails to. 'The kids', apparently, speak more truthfully and profoundly about their lives and experiences, because they are unpolluted by adult politics and outlooks. In fact, as anyone who has ever met a child will know, children can be extremely prejudiced and blinkered in their views. In fact, it seems that one reason why some reporters and filmmakers are drawn to the children of the Middle East is because they express the region's various prejudices in a sometimes shocking and unguarded way, thus sustaining the idea that this is a deeply bred and largely intractable conflict.

We should be so lucky. If dead child porn really had the capacity to make the Arab-Israeli conflict appear intractable to Americans, that would be a reason to favor it, because it might finally convince us to steer clear of the whole business.