Sunday morning, I gave up hope of sleeping until 8am when my nearly one-year-old managed one last sharp slap to my face. I rolled over, kissed her forehead, and checked Facebook. I found that SNL had delivered a sketch that not many found funny: a spoof of the Toyota Super Bowl ad of a young woman joining ISIS. The original ad, and the expectation, would have this woman with a bright future marching off to join the Army. Or Marines. Or Navy. Or Air Force. But not ISIS — that would be crazy.
What drew my attention more than the content, however, was the reaction. I began to ask myself why so many people believed SNL had gone too far with this topic. What would make the idea of a woman leaving her father to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan heartwarming? And yet that is the assumption, that fighting one battle and losing a daughter to one war would be somehow justified and make us shed a proud tear. I also looked at my two little ones and wondered what would motivate youth to join ISIS in the first place. It may not be what we want to hear, especially as parents, but I believe that the same factors motivating any person to join any war are often similar, if not the same. In the same way a daughter might leave her family to join the military in hopes of spreading justice, a daughter might also leave her family to join a movement in a foreign country, in hopes of spreading the same justice. We fight for the right to dictate how our young people see the world, but we fall apart when they don’t choose “the right side.”
We don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to imagine that the teen girls who boarded planes to eventually enter Syria were thinking about the same things as the high school girls who may have entered the military post-9/11. We don’t want to hear it because it destroys the construct of “us versus them.” Sure, both groups envision themselves defending an innocent group of people who are fighting for freedom and justice; both groups sympathize with a group of people suffering loss and destruction, and both groups have viewed hours of propaganda convincing them that their efforts will not be in vain. In contrast, both groups might be victims of bullying looking for a place to fit in and be heard. In truth, there are countless motivations for both groups. But they must be different.
If we are to prevent our sons and daughters from joining movements such as ISIS, we must have honest conversations about why people join them. We cannot imagine they are fringe groups of rebel teens who are brainwashed and mentally unstable. It is imperative to see these youth as the young people we see every day in our homes and classroom. The problem is that many youth are taught that some battles are noble and others are not, and the decision is not on the reason for the battle, but who is fighting. This is why the media cried out at the death of Muath Al-Kasaesbeh but remained silent at the drone strike that burned 13-year-old Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi. It is acceptable to seek revenge for 9/11. It is acceptable to drop drones on Yemeni grandmothers. It is okay to provide training to corrupt officers in Honduras. There’s no problem with holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without legal recourse. We normalize all of these practices under the assumption that the goal is freedom and liberty. It is unfair and irresponsible to assume that people could not use the same guise in recruiting for ISIS. In fact, that may be why it is so successful in recruiting.
What our young people deserve is honesty. Life is complicated and very rarely can one person, much less one group or one government, be categorized as completely evil or completely noble. When we set up our youth to believe in a world with such sharp divisions and no room for critical analyzing, we should not be surprised when they follow that teaching but choose the “other” noble side.
Stephanie Wallace teaches English and Spanish at a North Carolina university. She seeks interfaith understanding and respect for religious diversity.
(Photo Source: redflagnews.com)