By Diana Moukalled
18 March 2015
His face was smooth, the signs of imminent manhood yet to appear on his unblemished features, just like any other boy of his age. Even his eyes, which he had tried to empty of any sign of feeling, betrayed a childlike innocence, one squarely at odds with the barbaric act he was about to commit. Then he raised his hands — hands smaller than the gun he was holding — pointed them at the head of the victim —19-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Musallam, bound and on his knees — and pulled the trigger.
Yes, it was an execution of a teenager — carried out by a boy. These horrific scenes were broadcast by the Islamic State, which recruited the boy and ordered him to execute the young Palestinian teenager accused by the group of spying for Israel. But the truth is that throughout the footage of the execution the boy’s face does not change; it doesn’t suddenly take on any features you would associate with a cold-blooded killer. At the end of the execution, he still looks exactly like what he is: A little boy, not a monster.
We still do not know the nationality of the boy whom IS presented to us as one of its “cubs of the caliphate.” IS paraded another of these “cubs” weeks ago in yet another horrific video, with the boy identifying himself as a Kazakhstani. But this new boy remains unknown — though the authorities in France are linking him to Mohammed Merah, 23, who killed seven people in the country back in 2012, while claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Of course IS is not the first to make use of child soldiers, for history is full of horrific accounts of the use of children as instruments of war and the methodical and highly studied methods used to rob them of whatever vestiges of their humanity still remain — turning them into obedient and highly efficient killing machines. Unfortunately, it is not just the past that is full of these accounts; in our present day the UN has identified 20 conflict spots around the world where children are being recruited as soldiers from a very young age, a tactic used not only to ensure their obedience and loyalty, but one which also makes them from very early on view violence as a way of life.
A recent international report on children in Syria found that almost all fighting groups involved in the Syrian conflict were recruiting children as soldiers, while also detailing how the Syrian regime has killed and tortured children throughout the now four-year conflict — a deeply tragic state of affairs where children are both the victims of acts of violence and also the perpetrators of such acts.
In the 1970s, Cambodian dictator Pol Pot used methods similar to IS in his own recruitment of child soldiers for the Khmer Rouge. His main concern in those days, as it is to ISIS today, was to create a society impervious to the outside values he deemed inimical to the way of life he wished to impose. IS, of course, is no different in this department.
But I believe this satanic organization has sown the seeds of its own destruction; it will not last for long, and there will come a day when it will meet its sorry end. But what of the long-term repercussions of its actions, particularly when it comes to the children affected by them? What about the long-term effects of this psychology of violence which these children have inherited, and how will these acts of brutality —whether witnessed by the children, or committed by them, or both — affect the wider society in which these children will grow up and live? Indeed, one of the most well-documented dangers associated with the repeated viewing of acts of violence is that the viewer gradually becomes desensitized to what they are witnessing — perhaps a kind of unconscious defence-mechanism to shield one’s mind from the horrors being seen but which also has the unwanted side-effect of slowly transforming the horrific and shocking into the quotidian and banal, engendering a loss of feeling in the viewer in the process. But even this is not the end of the matter; being desensitized to violence is one thing, taking pleasure from it is another matter entirely, one that poses a much more terrifying danger for the future.
Is IS trying to create a society that has a distinct taste for conflict and killing, tastes which may even outlast the group itself? It is impossible to know IS’ intentions here, but what we do know for sure is that we are now faced with an entire generation of children in Syria who have been utterly shell-shocked and traumatized — and in the case of IS’ soldiers, entirely lost to us.