The VigilanceVoice

Wednesday -- June 19, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 280

Martyr Medals: 
Kids Honoring Suicide Bombers Create Heroes Of Terror
Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, June 19--In the Balata Refugee Camp in the West Bank, kids are giving up their soccer trading cards for "martyr medals" honoring suicide bombers and others who have died fighting the Israelis. 
        At first glance, I was appalled.   Then, I forced myself to wear a child's glasses, and to see through the eyes of a youth struggling to find some hero to aspire to.
       As I looked through the lenses of a child in the West Bank, I wondered what difference there was between a youth in America posting signs and pictures of Adolph Hitler in his or her bedroom and one in Balata Refugee Camp tossing away his Pokeman cards in favor of  “suicide bomber martyr medallions.”  I realized how easy it is for his or her “Heroes of Liberation" to be considered our "Monsters of Terrorism.”
       The more I wanted to throw stones at the glass house of "martyr medals," the more I could see my own reflection and the heavier the rocks became. 

     My first inclination was to indict a child who chooses to turn in a Pokemon card for a medallion with the name of a young man or woman who walked into a crowd of innocent civilians and blew up everything in sight.  Such an act at first glance seems a a violation of all "civilized nature."
       A child who honored a horrible "hero" such as a suicide bomber or one who died shooting at Israeli's seemed at first blush a deranged hoodlum, a recalcitrant, incorrigible youth whose actions were indefeasible in any court of human compassion.
       Then I stopped my indictments and thought of my own childhood.   As a reporter I am responsible for looking at both sides of any coin--no matter how much I might detest what is on the side I prefer not to examine.  What I saw when I flipped the coin startled me.  It also changed my opinion of "total indictment" about the kids in the West Bank wearing "martyr medals."

     I spent my puberty in Hawaii.  My father was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, situated next to Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu.  From my home at 1402 Porter Avenue, I could look through the fence at the site of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. We arrived in Hawaii when I was nine and left when I was twelve years old.
      One of my most vivid memories was of our Boy Scout Camp trips.   We stayed in old barracks high in the Hawaiian hills, lush with jungle growth.   The camp was still laced with trenches and bunkers where Americans trained to fight the Japanese. 
      On a hill behind us stood a white cross, a monument to where the first Japanese planes were spotted on their journey to bomb Pearl Harbor during the infamous sneak attack of December 7, 1941.
       Our Boy Scout Troop played, “kill the Jap” in our spare time.  We broke into teams, the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.”  The "good guys" hunted down the “dirty Japs,” relishing in killing them with make believe bullets, bombs and grenades. 

 We used mangos for grenades and sticks for rifles, but our intent was the same as had been touted by our parents and the nation during the heat of the war—to rid the plague upon this earth of all the “yellow devils.”
       I remember propaganda posters dehumanizing the Japanese, making it easy for one to view them not as human beings, but as sources of "evil" bent on destroying all the children of America and imposing their culture on ours.   Anyone who defended the Japanese was considered disloyal to America.

The favorite patch in my collection : The Screaming Eagles 

        World War II was less than a decade old when I fought these make-believe battles.   My heroes were the Marines who “blasted the enemy,” destroying them mercilessly.   The Japanese were the "Evil Ones," as the Taliban is today in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
        Signs of the war were prevalent throughout the island. Many buildings still wore the scars of the attack where large chunks of concrete were blasted away by the Zero’s 20mm machine guns.   Twisted metal defenses still speared out of water around Ford Island where I often took my dog for walks and pretended I was patrolling the beaches from enemy assault.
        The Korean War was winding down when we arrived at Hickam.   Military forces swarmed the island.  I was privy to many comments about the "gooks" that had been killed in Korea.   To earn spending money, I had taken up shining shoes and went from barracks to barracks shining the GI's shoes who were passing through.  I heard many stories as I shined their shoes, and collected a raft of shoulder patches for my collection and kept them in a "box of heroes," symbols of the guys who were fighting for my freedom

WWII anti-Japanese Propaganda Poster

      When we tired of playing "kill the Japs," we took up the next favorite game-- “kill the Nazis.”   We conducted similar battles, breaking into teams and hunting the Nazis to death.   If I was on the “good side,” I assumed the role of an American soldier fighting to cleanse the earth of the SS troops.   We made the enemy "ugly" by pretending they all had Hitleresque moustaches and evil stares.   (At the time I was into making model planes from balsa wood kits and was fascinated with the German  Messerschmitt fighter plane.   If I was picked to be Nazi, I always pretended to be a Messerschmitt pilot.   They were the coolest.)
         As my mind whirred back in time to my own childhood, I realized I had indicted the "enemy" with a viciousness not dissimilar to the children of the West Bank.   I saw  my "Evil Ones" as "inhuman creatures" whose extinction would guarantee my safety, and that of my sister and two brothers.   The more I reflected on  my own childhood experiences at lionizing our cause and trying to crush the "enemy's" cause, the less I felt justified to indict those who wore "martyr medals."

WWII anti-Nazi propaganda poster

       I’m sure there are many children in America playing “war” as I did.  Instead of killing "Germans" or "Japs,"  they are “killing” Osama bin Laden and his “bad, evil people.”   As I did, they are justifying the “right to kill” by associating with heroes such as those represented in the recent award winning film, Black Hawk Down. The film depicts a  fierce battle in Somalia where America’s crack troops kidnapped a “bad guy” and got caught in a horrendous crossfire.   The film promoted the American martyrs, but offered no perspective to those the Americans were fighting against, or presented the "enemy's" cause for inspection.  It was similar to a propaganda poster, totally one-sided, providing a dehumanized sense of the "enemy" and honoring only "our heroes" without an ounce of empathy for the "Evil Ones" or their cause.
         It is easy for me or anyone for that matter, to be righteously indignant about children of another land cheering over the death of the "innocent"  or lionizing their "freedom fighters."   I wonder how many Americans jumped with joy when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and tens of thousands of men, women and children were killed?   Or, perhaps we should forget the elation of the Dresden fire bombing in which almost as many were killed?

  War demands one not to hesitate in the muck of morality during the heat of battle.  To do this it is necessary to dehumanize the enemy and their families, their culture, their history..  That way, it's easier to "kill them," so when their bodies stack up one looks at the remains as "cords of wood" rather than "souls lost."  The warrior becomes the hunter, the dead, the hunted.  Bodies become trophies.
         While I do not defend or support indiscriminate violence, especially against unarmed civilians, it would not be fair to dehumanize  a child in the West Bank wearing the medal of a martyr just as it would not be fair to dehumanize a child in America who plays "kill the turban-heads" with his G.I. Joe toys.  In America, "Sergeant Rock" is our martyr-medal warrior.   Sgt. Rock is willing to die for his country but only after killing all the "Evil Ones" in sight.   He doesn't ask his bullets or grenades to distinguish between killing the enemy or the young boy bringing the enemy water.  He is a "killing machine."

Matell's Sgt. Rock

      In distant lands where cultures reach back thousands of years, and the rights of ownership are blurred by history and politics, it becomes difficult to say who has the "right to die" for the land in question.  
         Culturally, many in the Middle East believe the occupation of “their land” is being done illegally.   Many feel that every citizen of the occupying state is an “enemy,” and that by bombing or attacking the civilians, they are attacking the occupying force.  
      As I child, when playing my “war games,” I didn’t distinguish between a uniform and civilian clothes.  Any German or Japanese was the “enemy.”  If the "enemy" were in civilian clothes, they surely were a spy.   Under the Rules of War, a spy can be executed rather than taken prisoner.   Ergo, kill everyone.  And, we continue to promote that point-of-view in most of our modern media.

        In the recent movie with Nicolas Cage, The Windtalkers, Director John Woo allowed the Americans to kill hundreds of Japanese with single clips of a machine gun.  I thought it incredulous that our American heroes survived an onslaught of “enemy bullets" while countless Japanese lay dead from a single swipe of Cage's machine gun barrel.  It was as though our bullets were laced with “saintliness” and the Japanese's were malformed so they never struck their targets with any accuracy.
      (Incidentally, I walked out of the movie, sickened by its exploitation of facts and it twisted manipulation of an otherwise great story that could have honored rather than smirched the image of the Marine Corps and Native Americans).
     The movie presented the Japanese as a race of "yellow devils" and we, as the "liberating" force of Justice.  It created once again  "joyous justification" for deaths of many.  And, it taught any child watching the movie the "right to hate the enemy."
     Children are trained by their culture to defend its right to exist.   As I child, I grew up believing in my duty to defend  my nation.  In Vietnam, I was more than willing to die for my country.  I never gave a second thought to whether our presence in Vietnam was right or wrong.  I fought for the flag.  I fought for the Marine Corps.  I fought for the Principles of Freedom as I understood them.
       All communists were our enemies in my mind set.   Vietnam became a place where the measure of the enemy was the shape of their eyes,  the color of their black pajamas, the unintelligible sing-song language they spoke   A 500-pound bomb did not question who it killed, or a 7.6mm steel jacketed bullet did not stop and ask its

 target on which side of the fence--friend or foe-- it stood before slamming into it.   And, I didn’t question pulling the trigger.  One can't pause to reflect the morality of war or one dies.  War erases morality.  It suspends compassion.   It makes kids throw away Pokeman cards and don "martyr medals."

Today, I have learned to pause before I pull the trigger.  I pause and think through my beliefs to insure that what comes out of my mouth is more Vigilant than Complacent.   I do not blindly accept things as I once did, for I have a broader vision based on much experience, and many scars from the errors in judgment I have made about others.  I also carry the shame and guilt of killing indiscriminately--something most reporters can never fathom because the eyes of those they killed by "accident" do not appear in their dreams to haunt them.

      Today, I do my best to  think through the eyes of the children in lands far away as well as here at home.   The children in the Balata Refugee Camps may be no different than the children of the Revolutionary War America fought over two-hundred years ago.

      I wondered how the children then reacted to the British patrolling the streets of America?
       Did they set booby traps?
       Did they take sticks and pretend to kill the “Redcoats?”
       Did they put a mark on a stick with the name of someone they knew who died for the Revolution? 
       Did they make martyrs out of those who gave their lives against the British Empire?
       It seems likely children of any land would honor their “heroes" as the makers of G.I. Joe have learned.  The G.I. Joe  toy found a big audience when it first came out, and then during the Vietnam War it began to fall out of favor.  Now, it has been resurrected after September 11 and sales are soaring as parents rush to get a set for their child.
       Unfortunately, children don't delve into deep political or moral discussions over the “rights” of their enemy.  All they know is that this "force" is trying to kill them, their mothers, fathers, their "family."   Turf wars in American cities are similar.   The "Bloods" and "Crypts" are one example.  West Side Story illustrated the battles of ethnic street wars.  Gangs in America will "kill" over any "turf invasion."  Just ask anyone in Los Angeles who has been a victim of a "drive-by-shooting."

 Rappers are considered "urban Terrorists" by many.  They advocate the killing of police, and promote a hatred toward authorities who they claim brutalize their culture and oppress their children. 
       Just up the block from where I live in the East Village of New York City,  an African American shot a white man in the stomach, dragged a woman into an upscale wine bar, doused the patrons with kerosene and threatened to ignite them all because they were "white."   He shot and wounded two people and was tackled by a couple of women, wrestled to the ground and wounded by the police.  He left a note for his son telling him to "live a good life," and that he, the father, would be his "guardian angel."
      Will the boy's father become a martyr in his son's eyes?  
      Was his father justified in his "revolt" against "white oppression?"
      Will the kids in the "hood" wear martyr medals in his behalf?
      One's heroes requires a thorough examination of their culture prior to a blanket indictment.   If a child is brought up in a world of hate and anger against a certain race, or color or creed then any an all who retaliate against the oppression--or perceived oppression of that culture--may be subject for "heroism" in the eyes of the children who comprise that culture.
      In my own case, I aped the sentiments of my parents,  grandparents, uncles and aunts,  teachers,  newspapers and the culture I belonged to against the Japanese and Germans.
   .  My culture was also an oppressed culture.  I came from the "other side of the tracks."  I grew up wearing the yoke of  the divisions between "rich and poor." I believed there was a line drawn in the sand I could not cross because I was born on the "other side" --the poor side, the underprivileged side.  I felt gypped, cheated.   The military--my childhood culture--is a caste system.   Feudal lines are drawn between the gentry and elite.  You do not cross them.   Enlisted do not mix with officers by edict.  Enlisted kids did not date officer's kids.  
       I revolted against my culture.   I repudiated my background and went to college. I fought to distance myself from my roots.  I had no martyr to inspire me, but if I had, I might have worn his or her medallion.  I might have been driven by his or her example and honored the image, not the act, of "freedom at any expense."
       That's why I have to pause before I indict the children in the Batana Refugee Camp for elevating their martyrs to hero status.   To them, those who strap bombs around their waists and wade into the middle of the “enemy” and die in the process, are paving the way for their “freedom,” blasting their way toward an “independence,” they feel is rightfully theirs.
         Does this make the children wrong for wearing a “martyr’s medallion?”
         To answer the question I put myself in that situation.
      .  What would I do were I a child in a war-torn country, watching tanks and troops patrolling what I considered my “land?” 
       Would I throw rocks at them? 

       Would I consider becoming a martyr and strapping on a bomb?  
          Would I learn how to use a rifle and snipe at them?
         Again, I am not justifying or condoning any actions by children or adults that leads to the destruction or maiming of the innocent.
         However, I am painting a gray picture, one that is blurred and distorted; one that demands we think and reflect before we condemn and execute a final opinion of righteousness against others. 
          The lesson at hand demands we must first examine our own history, our own prejudices, our own sense of nationalism in light of those we might want to condemn.
        “What would we do if the tables were turned?” 
         We must ask this of the child in us, not the adult.
        I illustrate this portrait of "shades of gray" because as adults, Citizens of Vigilance, Parents of Vigilance, Grandparents of Vigilance, Loved Ones of Vigilance, we must be cautious to not righteously condemn others in the presence of our children, or grandchildren, our Loved Ones.  Ideally, we don't indict anyone even in the privacy of our thoughts without first looking at both sides of the coin.
        By intention or default, we can form in our children's  minds a blanket approval of violence against others.  We are, after all, our children's heroes.   They want to be like us.  The old adage that says, "If you want to know what a child will be like when he or she grows up, just follow him or her home and watch his or her parents."

   If we offhandedly issue our opinions from a narrow point of view, we can create a wall of black and white where a child sees all  "Germans" as evil, all “Japs” as threats, all “Middle Easterners” as children of Osama bin Laden, all "Whities" as oppressors, all "African Americans" as revolutionaries.   By letting our prejudices rule without cautious examination of their intent or justification, we can anesthetize our children from asking moral questions, and strip them of the responsibility for fairness in their opinions.  Herbert Spencer said the worst ill of mankind is "contempt before investigation.".

       America’s 72 million children, 18 years or younger, are sponges soaking up the the opinions of their parents, relatives and loved ones.   They assimilate viewpoints expressed by their guardians, some of which are embraced, some of which are rejected.   My older daughter, for example, nearly broke my heart when she registered as a Democrat.   But after some thought, I was proud she had learned to act on her own beliefs regardless of her parents Conservative Republican attitudes.
        Not all children in the Middle East collect martyr medallions just as not all children in the U.S. play with G.I. Joe.
      Not all want to participate in the violence, or agree with it as a solution.   We hear only about those who “stand out of the crowd.”   We don’t hear about those who weep over the loss of their friends, or recoil from the hate and anger.

     There always is another side to every coin.  I saw on CNN news yesterday a Palestinian woman chiding her neighbors for cheering the recent bombing in Israel that killed a score of people.   She admonished her neighbors for being joyous about the destruction, and cried on camera:  “How could you honor such an act?” she demanded.
        She was a Voice of Vigilance in a world of torn Tyranny.
        Her children, if she has any, surely have a home front that dissuades them from  not wearing martyr medals.
       But how many parents in America would tell their child someone wearing a T-Shirt with the words blazed on it:  “Osama bin Laden:  Wanted, Dead Not Alive!” is advocating violence when they should be promoting appeasement?
       Would we, as a collective nation, cheer as we pinned a Congressional Medal of Honor on the neck of he or she who chopped off Osama’s head?
         Would we offer lesser but still glorious "hero tributes"  for each of Osama's dead lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, privates? 
      How about their wives and children who support them, feed them, arm them?       Would they be included in the widening circle of “justified enemies?”  Would they be considered "Evil Ones Once Removed?"  
        How far would the circle of "righteous indignation" span?  
        Who would be excluded?  Why?

        Children don’t think in such critical terms.   Instead, they see black and white—at least I did.  A “Jap” was a “Jap.”  A “Nazi” was a “Nazi” and all Germans were potential Nazis.  
       In Vietnam we had “free fire zones”—areas where we were allowed to shoot anything that moved—men, women or children.   If 'it' wore black pajamas, if 'its' skin color was yellow and if 'it' rustled a bush or ran, 'it' was a target of opportunity.   Some warriors like Senator Bob Kerry got heroes medals for killing the innocent by "accident."  .
       Vigilance means we, as guardians of our children’s morality toward others, must use our common sense when we express our opinions about others—whether it be the ethnic group down the street, or the faceless enemy of Terrorism far across the sea.

       We are the mirrors of either Terrorism or Vigilance for our children.
        If we carry medallions around our neck demeaning certain groups or individuals we have maimed or murdered with our prejudices, bigotry and revulsion,  we need to take them off and bury them before we indict others who wear them in far-away lands.
        If we truly are Citizens of Vigilance and Parents of Vigilance, we must clean up our own houses before we throw stones at others.  Prejudice and bigotry are horrible Terrors that deface one's view of others and the world.   When our children see we do not wear martyr medallions, they may be less inclined to seek out their own.
        Instead of cheering Terrorism, our children need to cheer Vigilance.   And, as with all battles against Terrorism, the roots of Vigilance begin at home.   One step in sinking them deep in our children is to destroy our "martyr medals" of prejudice and bigotry toward others.
        We must never forget that those who died in the World Trade Center--our Sentinels of Vigilance--represented 80 different nations, and countless hundreds of different cultural viewpoints.  
         The less we righteously indict others, the louder the Sentinels of Vigilance sing.

Go To June 18--Awaiting The Child Of Vigilance    

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