I: When words have consequences: on labeling children “terror spawn,” and some stories and thoughts on agency …
Earlier this month, @CChristineFair (who is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies) and I got into a twitter argument of sorts. On twitter she had expressed her incredulity that people had an issue with her public labeling of bin Laden’s children as “terror spawn.” I was among those who had an issue and responded. Fair also took umbrage at Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of bin Laden’s wives and children on humanitarian grounds, something I questioned in another tweet, remarking that I was glad Saudi Arabia received them. After all, where else would they go: back into the network?
After Fair’s “terror spawn” comments, I asked if she even knew anything about the children. My reason for asking was to try to discern whether her comments stemmed from malice or a lack of knowledge about those she was labeling, the conditions of children born into jihad, and the implications of labeling them.
At first glance it seems Fair is not ignorant of these conditions. After all, she is co-author with Victor Asal and Stephen Shellman of “Consenting to a Child’s Decision to Join a Jihad: Insights from a Survey of Militant Families in Pakistan” (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism Volume 31, Issue 11, 2008, pp. 973-994).
Their article asks “what factors might impact the decision by familial authority figures to give or deny permission when a young person asks if they can have permission to join an organization dedicated to waging jihad.” Fair and her co-authors thought it a serious enough question to warrant research including commissioning a survey of 141 families, and to successfully submit their findings for publication in one of the major journals in the counter-terrorism field. In the article, the authors wrote that they believed “this focus on the family is a rare and important contribution to an understanding of the dynamics of non-state political violence and terrorism and the authors hope that this article is a helpful contribution in addressing this empirical lacuna.”
It is a pity Fair has not given comparable attention to the situation of children of jihadists who lack agency before describing them repeatedly as “terror spawn” and variously – when challenged on this usage – as “terror seed,” “terror pups,” or “terror piglets.” After all, in the study just quoted, Fair and her co-authors write, “family can have important impacts on the political attitudes and behaviors of children and young adults.” So too can dehumanizing children born into this lifestyle through deliberate labeling such as Fair’s cited above. This, however, does not seem to bother Fair, who stated she found my concern for bin Laden’s children misplaced.
You can judge for yourself if you think my concern is misplaced. Likewise, you can judge for yourself how Fair’s words reflect upon her. (For anyone willing and able to dig back through three weeks worth of tweets to the beginning of this month, you can see our twitter interaction on our respective feeds.) One thing I can attest to, however, is that since leaving counter terrorism practitioner work for academia, I have had sustained contact over a number of years with the children of militants; those she would probably label “terror spawn.” Instead of relying on commissioned survey data, I’ve put myself out there and sought to engage in dialogue and discussion.
In the spirit of openness and accountability, I’d like to make clear that I am writing this piece in part because I have used labels that mockingly described militants (but not children), with my usual term being “numpties,” (although I will own up to using some additional labels that required money be put in the swear jar). I have since come to see that this was an error of judgment. It stemmed from a lack of direct exposure and thus ignorance and a lack of knowledge, all of which led to my failure to appreciate the consequences of such actions, and is too I suspect from where Fair’s labeling also stems.
After coming to this realisation I have sought out more discussion, dialogue and debate. As a result, I have become more aware of the consequences and general counter productiveness of dehumanizing and/or mocking labeling, of both adults and children. You can see the beginnings of this evolution through my blog postings and tweets, and I think the change has been for the better. However, like many things, I still have much to learn, and a higher standard of consistent neutral behavior and analysis to hold myself to as an academic and public commentator in this area of study.
So my purpose here is not to pillory Ms Fair. Rather it is to highlight the underlying issues our dispute has raised. In particular, her use of the term “terror spawn” and other labels, as well as her and others’ support for incorporating mockery as a part of counter terrorism strategies, raised for me two issues that have far wider application. These are the lack of awareness of the situation of children born into jihad, particularly those in the militant milieu surrounding al Qaeda, and the tendency towards dehumanizing and mocking those seen as enemies, and the attendant consequences this brings. Thus, my take away from this “twitterfight” seems more important than the personal disagreement between the two of us.
Accordingly, what I want to do here is to write something that explains the situation of bin Laden’s children and others like them because it seems that our lack of awareness does tend to shape how we view them, their situation and our own actions.
Over a series of posts I’m going to relate to you with the permission of those who have told me, what it is and/or was like to be a child in this environment, and drawing from this, to talk a little about where children– bin Laden’s and others’–fit within the dynamics of the militant milieu, and the complexities of leaving. Later, I hope to follow this up with some posts on the impact of mockery more generally, which I will base on first hand practitioner experience, as well as on my experiences after I left the field of counter terrorism for academia, namely the dialogues and communications I have had with those who have been involved in the milieu. By doing so, I hope to raise some issues for discussion, and highlight some areas where we can all (myself included) benefit from gaining more knowledge and understanding.