Analysis: Cultivating Children Suicide Bombers

by Aaron Hess

The Consortium for Strategic Communication was fortunate to have Brooke Goldstein come to Arizona State University on Friday November 9th and present her film, The Making of a Martyr. The film tackles the issue of children suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict. After the presentation, a group of panelists offered interpretations, comments, and criticisms. Of the variety of themes present in the film and panel discussion, the problem of children’s exposure to pro-martyrdom messages was a particularly salient topic.

Goldstein strongly argues that children are being brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers; their manipulation stems from the overall occupation, levels of despondence in the region, and adults, including parents and local leaders, encouraging them toward martyrdom. Additionally, she believes that the media environment supports acts of martyrdom for youth and displays television shows in her film to support her argument. Similarly, Corman and Schiefelbein have argued that television media and new media are contexts in which terrorist ideology are propagated, and Derk analyzed the polarizing messages in children’s programming on Al Nas, a state-run television station.

Not surprisingly, Goldstein claims that youth are frequently exposed to messages that encourage and glorify acts of martyrdom. She includes images and clips from major media in the Middle East that use cartoons with anime-style graphics depicting youth offering their bodies in service of the anti-occupation forces. Additionally, she documents the pro-martyr posters that are placarded around the hometowns of the deceased children, commemorations of their acts and sacrifice. Such media socialize youth into believing that martyrdom is more than acceptable; it is revered.

Principles

Cultivation theory argues that humans cultivate understandings of the world around them through indicators found within television programming. Those who are consistently exposed to television believe that the world on television and the world around them are more similar than not.

As Gerbner (1998) wrote: “Children begin viewing several years before they begin reading and well before they can even talk. Television viewing both shapes and is a stable part of lifestyles and outlooks. It links the individual to a larger if synthetic world, a world of television’s own making” (p. 180).

For example, White and Preston (2005) analyzed the Disney Channel to discover that programming there offers a range of possibilities for youth: “The discourse of individuality and themes of self-expression, originality, and the courage to be true to one’s own self define the character of Disney kids” (p. 249). Coupled with family values and friendship, Disney simultaneously promotes interconnection and individuality for children.

Youth exposed to media, such as television programs, posters that glorify previous martyrs, and Internet websites, are being cultivated into becoming martyrs themselves. Gerbner and Gross (1976) believe that television’s “system of messages, with its storytelling functions, makes people perceive as real and normal and right that which fits the established social order” (p. 173). Moreover, television offers frames of reference and the means to make sense of the world around us. As youth are exposed to messages about their lives, the programs they watch define the range of possibilities for their lives.

Analysis

According to Goldstein’s film, it is apparent that the children who are persuaded into suicide bombing attacks have limited resources, both symbolic and material, available to them. When traumatized by local acts of violence, children look for frameworks to make sense of the chaotic world around them. Explanations such as the demonization of the enemy or the hope of paradise in life after death become frames that assign meanings to events and to the corresponding actions that a child could take.

In the case of media images, Goldstein documents a variety of images that are used to instill a particular view of reality in the youth of these ravaged areas. Television, posters, and graffiti all glorify the acts and agents of martyrdom, reinforcing a system of bodily sacrifice that sends children into harms way. These symbolic resources do not provide other avenues for children to travel and appear to limit the possibilities of future states of being.

Goldstein believes that censorship practices would be one means by which these messages could be combated. In addition to her call, alternative message strategies that promote different possibilities for children in the Middle East could offer children other options than being enticed into martyrdom. In other words, children need to cultivate other ideas about the importance of their lives. If presented with a variety of images and values, children may be less likely to believe that martyrdom is an acceptable end to their lives.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children are unable to make full decisions about their lives due to their “physical and mental immaturity.” Additionally, the treaty mandates that states should “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” In the case of media messages and images that promote children suicide bombers, communication interventions into current programming practices would help to promote the well-being of children affected by recurrent conflicts.

Further Reading

  • Gerbner, G. & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172-194.
  • Gerbner, G. (1998). Cultivation analysis: An overview. Mass Communication & Society, 1, 175-194.
  • White, C. L. & Preston, E. H. (2005). The spaces of children’s programming. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22, 239-255.