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Like many people, I perched on my sofa to watch cable news after reports rolled out last week about the U.S. airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds military force. Noticing my interest, my son nestled beside me. We watched President Donald Trump say he authorized the strike “to stop a war,” and avert “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” About 30 minutes into our watching session, my son asked, “Are we going to war?”
Killing anyone, I explained, evokes a strong response. Losing a family member, friend or colleague is difficult under normal circumstances, such as illness and old age. When a loved one’s life is taken by another in a deliberate, violent act, the emotions generated lead many to seek out justice by another name. “Remember how upset you were when you thought your friend had stolen your basketball?” I asked. “But there are different ways to respond — you chose to ask your friend about it without lashing out first.”
This case was not like that one, I explained. This time, I believed, Iran would likely respond with violence. Yet the truth I wanted my son to absorb, despite what the pundits on air said, was this: War is not necessary.
I’ve pretty much given up trying to shield my son from television news, even though it’s often too weighty for a 9-year-old to properly process. But some difficult news must be addressed by responsible adults: Whether the broadcast is about an unarmed black child getting shot at the hands of police, a neighborhood murder or the state-sanctioned killing of an Iranian military leader. I’ve learned that children can handle troubling and even traumatic news, if there is a nurturing parent or teacher present to help them make sense of the events. When I’m compelled to watch news that may threaten my son’s sense of security, we watch it together, so I can have a conversation with him after.
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We tend to think that schools help shape children’s future decision-making. However, the context surrounding children’s lives also offers a curriculum of sorts. We’re living in an era defined by fractured politics, increased hostilities towards immigrants, an upsurge in hate crimes and economic divergence across regional and racial lines: That environment is teaching children to reject anyone who looks, talks or acts differently and to embrace enmity and insularity instead.
Children don’t naturally reject other kids based on their parents’ political affiliations, race, religion or nationality. They are taught to do so.
They are naturally inquisitive; they will think about and sometimes ask about war. I worry that if kids as young as my son learn from our environment not to ask “Why war?” they will develop into adults who believe war is not only necessary but inevitable. Kids who aren’t taught to ask “Why now?” when it comes to war don’t learn that there are alternatives.
War repeats itself because young children aren’t trained to ask these questions.
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In 2003, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, a think tank, wrote an op ed asking those very questions about the U.S. government’s decision to go to war with Iraq. At the time, then-president George W. Bush and the people of America were eager to eliminate a reviled state leader, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration informed us that Hussein had failed to disarm and disclose his weapons of mass destruction. The media seemed to support the government narrative. The problem was, we never found the purported weapons of mass destruction. In a 2015 opinion piece, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman summarized our delusion: “The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that.”
That war and the regional instability it caused has led us to where we are today. We cannot afford to ignore the “Why war?” and “Why now?” questions anymore.
Iran and Soleimani posed a longstanding threat to American interests and assets, due to the historic enmity between the U.S. and Iran. Soleimani armed and trained enemy militias that killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq War. He increased the scope of violence by providing training, as well, to other paramilitaries in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Yemen. He was considered a terrorist by the U.S. government, but he was also an official state leader. Iranian officials therefore consider the airstrike an act of war. Even with Soleimani’s track record, we need to ask “Why war?” and “Why now?”
Because of its timing, rational analysts must connect the recent American action to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Before Trump was elected, he repeatedly said President Obama would start a war with Iran to get elected. Now that Trump is in his own fight to get reelected, his claim that the strike was a preventive measure must be similarly scrutinized. Trump’s consistent lying on numerous issues has decimated his credibility; I have no doubt that the drone attack was as much about saving his own political life as protecting the lives of Americans.
Our children must learn to ask “Why now?” when considering the timing of any aggression that risks the lives of others. Preemptive strikes are seldom about preventing imminent casualties, no matter what leaders profess. We did not have to launch into war against Iraq then and we don’t have to do so against Iran now.
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When a black child is shot at the hands of police, I have a conversation with my son. I must also talk to him about the child who is killed in another country. Our children are connected; we must not shield them from difficult conversations. Certainly, limit the exposure of young children (especially ages 2 to 6) to images of war-torn countries and bloodied bodies as well as other disturbing sights and sounds. Seeing traumatic imagery at a young age can result in depression, confusion and anxiety. You can mitigate some of that by talking to your children about important world events. So, be deliberate: Include them in major conversations and debates about what they see on television and hear on the radio in ways you can control; offer simple, age-appropriate explanations while emphasizing that all children have a right to safety and security.
For older children, don’t let cable news be their teacher. If you want to use news as a learning tool, express a healthy skepticism of any news organization that uncritically promotes the government’s use of war. Credible news sources should also be asking “Why war?” and “Why now?” Warn kids that social media often only make room for people to engage in a war of words, instead of a serious discussion and the deliberate exchange of ideas. Notwithstanding the constant attack on truth by those who promote war, I trust that facts will show that war can and should be avoided.
Do I wish kids to be inundated by talk of war, white supremacy and political discord? Of course not — but that’s what is in front of them. Let us help them navigate the curriculum of life, by showing them that asking critical questions reveals critical truths.
This story talking to children about current events was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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