When Children Are the Target

People sit under a billboard in Manchester city center, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead as it ended on Monday night. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

It is a reality of war that it's conduct creates collateral damage -- a euphemism for the destruction of non-military targets and the death of innocent civilians. No matter how carefully a military force conducts its operations, innocents will be caught in the crossfire. A reality that is all the more likely when the opposing side uses civilians and institutions like schools, churches and hospitals to give itself cover. When it comes to collateral damage, nothing is more poignant than images of children, maimed or killed, as the violence of war engulfs them.  

On May 22, a British-born suicide bomber of Libyan ancestry detonated an improvised explosive device outside a stadium in Manchester, England. I will not say his name. He deserves nothing more than the anonymity of a coward. At the time the American pop star Ariana Grande was holding a concert, one of a number that had been planned as part of a worldwide tour. The attack resulted in the deaths of 22 people, mostly children. 120 people were injured 59 of whom were hospitalized. About 20 remain in critical condition. They ranged in age from eight-year-old Saffie-Rose Roussos to a middle-aged Polish couple residing in York who were waiting to pick up their daughters, Alex and Patrycja. The girls are safe, now orphans.

It is impossible to find any geopolitical significance in the attack. The music of Ariana Grande is not particularly political. She is not associated with issues that are socially or politically controversial. There was no defining ethnic, social or political characteristic in her audience; no emotional or historical significance to the venue or its location. It was a stadium full of young girls and their mothers. We cannot therefore escape the fact that the deaths of the children that resulted from the Manchester bombing were not collateral damage -- they were the target.

Miss Grande cancelled the rest of her tour and went home. Understandable, what 23-year-old girl who suddenly finds herself in a war zone wouldn't run to the safety of home and its gated protection? Still, in doing so she validated the bomber's actions. The message to other would be suicide bombers intent on shutting down the decadent music of the West is unmistakable. Blow yourself up outside the entrance of a concert venue, take a few infidel children with you and that will be the end of the concert tour.

How does a civilization die? Certainly, its members can be subject to a genocidal extermination either by disease or by willful slaughter. History is replete with such examples, including sadly, our own treatment of the native peoples of the Americas. The symbols of a civilization, the cultural artifacts that define it and illustrate its evolution can be destroyed. The Nazis burned books, destroyed art, melted down into anonymity religious artifacts made of precious metals. So too, did the Spanish conquerors of the civilizations of the Americas. The use of a language can be banned as the British did, from the Gaelic of the Scottish Highlands to the Afrikaans of the Transvaal. But most of all civilizations die when they lose their voice.

I am not a fan of Ariana Grande. Honestly, I'm too old. My musical tastes peaked a generation ago with rockers who are now grey and long in the tooth. It's hard to argue that Ariana Grande and her music is some kind of transcendental symbol of Western civilization, the end product of a multi-millennium cultural evolution that began in the Agora of ancient Greece. Still, when Ariana Grande cancelled her tour and went home, a piece of Western civilization died. One string in the cacophony of voices that is the culture of the West was silenced. What's more, an example was set for how to silence even more voices. Journalists, political cartoonists, social activists have all been subject to this kind of intimidation. What Manchester underscores is that now it is not even necessary to speak a political message; it is enough to just speak.

The civilization of the West is slowly and steadily being silenced. The vibrancy of the culture that brought us political liberalism and the glory of the Renaissance, Western philosophy and quantum mechanics, the culture of Christianity and the beat of rock and roll, the industrial-technological revolution and equal political and social rights is dying. To be sure, it is also a civilization that brought us pogroms and the Inquisition, imperialism and slavery, the political and economic exploitation of other peoples, the subjugation of women, and the wanton destruction of other cultures and civilizations. The West has much to atone for, but it also has much to be proud of.

Will Western civilization defend itself from the tsunami of barbarism that is engulfing it or are we so ashamed of the sins of our forefathers that we will stand by as the culture which has shaped us and defined it is steadily destroyed? Every civilization has the right to define itself, to select its principals and its culture, to choose its icons and its symbols. It also has the right to insist that those who want to be part of it also have the responsibility to defend it, to advance it, to protect it and yes, where appropriate, to atone for its transgressions even if they were committed by citizens long since dead.

I remember as a young man seeing the hard hat wearing demonstrators waving signs declaring "America: Love it or Leave It." At the time, I thought they were hopelessly naïve reactionaries intent on defending a status quo whose time had long since passed. Age and hindsight have changed that assessment. America is a place that you should either love or leave. Love, however, doesn't mean slavishly following the dictates of a political class that has long since lost the trust of its constituents or the spin of media elites whose hypocrisy is exceeded only by the size of their paychecks.

Love means accepting the culture that has shaped and defined you, striving to make it better, advancing it, fixing where you can the consequences of its missteps. Above all it is about defending its core principals, those ideas, doctrines and practices that define it and differentiate it from other cultures. It is not about rewriting our history to conform to a currently fashionable politically correct assessment. Love means learning and adopting from the best that other cultures can offer but also not allowing your own culture to be lost in an indistinguishable puree of multiculturalism that strips us of our identity and makes us apologists for the worse of other cultures rather than advocates of their best.

In Manchester, parents are mourning the death of their children and orphans are mourning the death of their parents. Who will mourn the death of the West?

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