Songs of childhood

How do you make a terrorist? I can't pretend to know the definitive answer to that question, and I'm not at all sure that there is just one. But I can see that it's possible that some people who had childhoods not unlike mine could become terrorists when pushed or pulled by the necessary circumstances at the appropriate time.

I was born in Northern Ireland and I kept that out of my first nine books because the fundamentalism at the heart of that society, split as it was by a sectarian divide, stopped making sense almost the moment I arrived in Brisbane aged eight and three quarters. In Northern Ireland, there were normal lives being lived as well – normal for the most part – but both sides of the conflict had some people who would hate and kill and die for their beliefs. These were fundamentalists of a white Christian kind who were citizens of the United Kingdom. They were divided by which branch of Christianity they'd inherited, but also divided by politics, walls, barricades, armed patrols, old seething hatreds, ancient ignorance, imbalances of opportunities and sometimes simple deep-seated frustration that was given an outlet in violence seen by some as legitimate.

No major religion urges its devotees to plant bombs, to strike out and kill people in a way that's random or close to it. There are always other factors at work, too – power imbalances, poverty, anger, views that are held about a cause. But religion is often a marker that becomes attached to these divides. In open wars and civil conflicts in many parts of the world, armies and insurgents on all sides fight with the conviction that God is with them. In lower-level conflicts, it's still sometimes one of the most powerful labels going. Northern Ireland has been one of those places.

I was a Protestant on the Ards Peninsula, and I recently spoke to someone I know who grew up, a few years younger than me, as a Catholic in Belfast. He grew up having heard that Protestants ate their babies. All too easily, we make demons of the people on the other side of the wall. Or, rather, there are people in our communities who make our demons for us and pass them on to us. And you can't know better than that if you're too young to know anything. You take on those views and believe them, if they're part of your world and largely uncontested.

If we don't know this, we don't know fundamentalism. If we don't know it, we don't know where terrorists come from. And if we don't know where terrorists come from, any war against terrorism risks being a lumbering blunt instrument that terrorists will believe confirms the basis of their rage and that they will find ways around.

If we see terrorists as so different that they're almost another species, that allows us to think about exterminating them. If that's to be our answer, its cost will be high and we will see much more terrorism. While we need to track down and deal with people who commit and support terrorist acts, it can only be part of what we do. By itself it may win some victories but it may also create martyrs, entrench prejudices and inadvertently lead to an increase in terrorist recruitment. So it's important to look at what happens in a terrorist's life before terrorism – to look at the forces shaping young lives in societies known to produce terrorists.


I REMEMBER DRIVING THROUGH BELFAST ONE DAY and my mother pointing out a Catholic school. I looked out the window for as long as I could as we passed. I wanted to see what Catholics looked like but I couldn't because they were all inside. I can remember now the picture that was in my mind of how Catholics might be. They all had dark eyes and thin faces and short straight black hair with skull caps. It's nonsensical and I can't explain it, but it's what was in my head. To me, perhaps, people who looked like that would be different, and Catholics would be different.

What makes even less sense about it is that, when I was young, we spent at least two summer holidays in Cork, in a part of Ireland that could hardly have been more Catholic. We made friends with the O'Driscolls, who were from there, and my mother remembers me explaining to one of the O'Driscoll girls, who was around my age, that we weren't that different really; that they thought Mary was really important but we knew she was just Jesus's mother.

That's a child's view of the world – a jumble of different rules from different places, all sorted and tried out to determine which combination fits with what we see. Here's the line I drew: the O'Driscolls must be like us because we spent time with them and they were great people and they seemed like us, but Catholics in the north were definitely different because, as far as I was aware, I didn't see them and they lived in different places and I knew people who saw some of them as some kind of enemy.

I expect my Mary line came from my parents, though not quite in the form in which I used it. I can imagine my mother saying it as "they believe" and "we believe" in a careful even-handed way and for me that became "they think" and "we know".

On my second day at Ascot State School in Brisbane, the class divided for religious instruction. If the idea of the class dividing took me by surprise, it was nothing compared with the shock when the teacher asked for the Catholics to stand and the girl next to me turned out to be one of them. My first, instinctive, thought was that I'd let my guard down. How could I not know? How could I not tell?

When my father read the manuscript of The Thompson Gunner – my first book with a character with a Northern Irish childhood – his only suggestion was that I needed to change the name of one character. I had called him Gerard, and my father said that was a Catholic name, and there wouldn't have been a Gerard within 20 miles of my fictional village.

That's why Ascot State School surprised me. That's why I was left knowing that there was much of my former life that I couldn't explain in any sensible way.

I'd grown up with a pretty abnormal definition of normal, but I only worked that out properly when I was writing the novel. Throughout my childhood and adolescence – and beyond – in Australia, my family and I maintained a position that Northern Ireland was more normal than people gave it credit for, that the trouble was mostly in some well-known areas and beyond them, day-to-day life was relatively unaffected. I'm sure that view is partly right – my childhood was no Belfast childhood – but it doesn't acknowledge the dysfunction that was there in other places. Perhaps it crept in in the late '60s and early '70s, and people gave up true normality an inch or two at a time.

Some family friends worked it out once they realised what was happening when they drove their children across Belfast to school. Over time the risk on some parts of the trip increased. They started looking out for trouble, then the parents started making the children get down on the floor if there might be danger ahead. One day they worked out that their children would routinely lie on the floor of the car for certain parts of the trip. They worked out that it had become as regular and as normal as a habit, and it happened without a word needing to be spoken.

We became used to stopping to be searched when we went into shops in the coastal towns near where we lived. We became used to the army setting up roadblocks, then people in our village set up roadblocks, too. People became used to the orderly evacuation of a street when there was a bomb scare and used to real bombs sometimes being the reason for it. The last time I saw a Belfast shopfront fall into the street as the shop burned after a bomb had gone off, almost no one else was watching.

I had a great aunt who bought raspberry sherbets for my sister and me, and we loved them and she knew it. It turned out that she only knew one place to buy them, and she had to cross some of the wrong parts of Belfast to get there. A few times she was pinned down for a while by crossfire on her way there, but she refused to let it stop her. You can't let things like that stop your life being normal.


WE ACCOMODATED IT ALL, WHICH IS WHAT YOU DO IF IT'S THERE in your world. We normalised it, because that's what you have to do to live from one day to the next. But try transposing it to Australia. For Belfast, read Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. For the coastal town read Caloundra or Terrigal or somewhere on the Mornington Peninsula. How normal does it looks now?

In our village in Northern Ireland, the day after John F. Kennedy died, my mother mentioned how terrible she thought it was, only to get the reply, "But, sure, he was only a Catholic".

At our school, instead of singing "I'd like to teach the world to sing", we sang "I'd like to crucify the Pope". A few years later, not far away in a different part of the province, some Catholic children would be singing about the bomb that blew Mountbatten to pieces and that, too, would be a proud, cruel song that would give people a laugh.

I've no idea where songs like that come from, but someone must start them. There was too much politics in ours for any of us eight-year-olds to have written them, but somehow they came our way. And we sang them because it's what we did. Never at home, though, not at our place. Even then I had two worlds that were subtly different, and I knew it.

At school, it was part of belonging. It didn't come from the teachers, it didn't come from anywhere official, it was just there. I can see how such things have consequences. I can see how children can find themselves in childhoods with no moderating views on offer, and where belonging becomes very much about holding the views around them. Most of us do that, until something teaches us to question. Some environments work against people picking up that skill. Fundamentalist environments, I suspect, aren't much about questioning.

So, from an early age, from the time you have language, it starts. And if everyone around you thinks that the people on the other side of the wall might eat their babies, you probably think it, too. If they believe the people on the other side of the wall are their enemies, then they are your enemies, too. And you belong.

In most cases there is no wall, but the way it works there might as well be. You couldn't grow up in a city like Belfast thinking that Christians of another kind must all look dramatically different – surely you would see them. But you wouldn't see what they did in their houses, or after dark, though you'd hear stories and they wouldn't be good.

There's also more to belonging than the beliefs you take on. If you're two or three years old, and the four– and five-year-olds are throwing stones at soldiers, you throw stones, too. If you're 10 and the 12-years-olds you look up to are throwing petrol bombs, chances are you might as well. And the petrol bombs will be in the air and smashing and burning long before you have an adult grasp of consequences. We model behaviours. It's part of being human. That's what we do. And it can be exciting to throw things and burn things and break things. Children test boundaries and if those are the boundaries being tested in the streets where you grow up, it's easy to find yourself involved. And there's no great transition from that to running messages, rioting on command and learning how to handle guns.

BUT MANY CHILDREN BROUGHT UP IN ENVIRONMENTS LIKE THAT don't become terrorists, and that's a phenomenon at least as interesting as the children who do. Why don't they?

For a start, not every child brought up in the same street at the same time has an identical set of influences. Beyond that, in any sizeable group of children you'll find some who take on views with more fervour, some who get a bigger buzz out of taking risks or inflicting damage, some with a greater need to be part of the pack or to have the respect that is sometimes given to those with the power to do harm, some who simply face a lower tolerance of boredom or frustration.

It's probably normal, in dysfunctional environments such as these, for some children to grow into terrorists and some not to.

But as far as I can see, this is not how we tend to think about terrorism. I wonder if we have a tendency to think that fanaticism and terrorism are only the province of late-adolescent and adult males, as though someone takes healthy male teenagers and turns them this way when adulthood beckons – persuades them, brainwashes them, manipulates them, drugs them, promises them a better kind of heaven. No doubt this happens, but to think it's the only way disregards childhood and the effect of a childhood lived in a place where such views and behaviours dominate and are part of the fabric of life.

At any time, there are about 300,000 child soldiers fighting in conflicts around the world as members of national armies, opposition forces, militias and underground groups. Most of them are teenagers, but the number includes boys and girls as young as seven. The website of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers ( quotes a military commander in Congo as saying that children "make good fighters because they're young and want to show off. They think it's all a game, so they're fearless."

Many child soldiers are, of course, far from fearless. A significant number are forced into becoming soldiers, some through being kidnapped from their schools or homes. Others are driven to it by hunger, poverty or abuse at home. This is reflected in a study of demobilised Sudanese child soldiers, in which the children listed their needs as peace, food and the chance to go to school safely.

Some children, though, find a sense of purpose and belonging when they take up arms. On top of that, children can prove easier than adults to condition into fearless killing, and the lightweight weapons now available allow even small children to kill efficiently in combat. The first United States military casualty in Afghanistan was reportedly shot by a child.

Before the war in 2003, Iraq trained boys and girls as young as 10 in combat techniques and small-arms use. According to 1998 estimates, the Kurdish Workers Party had 3000 child soldiers, with the youngest aged seven.

When Australia joined the US and UK – and Kurdish militias – in a war with Iraq, we sent the SAS. We shouldn't assume everyone else did the same. It's a mistake to make assumptions about the conduct of a war based on our perceptions of our own army and its conduct. In the place where the war is actually fought, it's almost never as neat as one group of well-trained and well-equipped consenting adult troops coming up against another.

Armies have attacked school groups because they have mistaken them for child guerilla units. In Australia, it can be hard to imagine soldiers finding themselves in circumstances where they might come to think that way.

Anna Burns talked at the writers' festival in Perth in 2003 about being a child in Belfast in the early 1970s. Her novel No Bones (HarperCollins, 2002) is largely set there and it begins when her central character is about seven, in 1969. Having avoided the "Irish writer" sessions at writers' festivals for my whole career, I only ended up in hers because I happened to be in mid-conversation with someone who walked in there.

In the early '70s the British army patrolled the streets where Anna Burns lived, and she was afraid of them. One day, when she was nine and small for her age, she turned a street corner and almost collided with a soldier. It was the soldier who jumped back and, from the look on his face, she knew he was afraid of her as well. For the first time, she realised that a nine-year-old might be a threat to a soldier.

Stopping the use of child combatants is about stopping the abuses of children that lead to them taking up arms. Most obviously, this includes the threats and abductions that force many children into becoming soldiers, as well as addressing factors such as poverty and other deprivation that can drive them to it. But it also includes addressing the environments in which children can grow up wanting to be soldiers – wanting to define themselves in their communities as people who are devoting their lives to the cause and who would die for it.

In setting out to address this, we need to remember than even these children are children. Child soldiers are also victims of conflict, even when they are willing perpetrators.

Many children drawn into conflict find themselves there because of dreadful circumstances, but some fight because the seeds of fanaticism are sown early in life, and there are adults prepared to exploit that. When we think of the fanaticism that underlies terrorism, we should remember this.


AT LEAST ONE REVIEWER OF THE THOMPSON GUNNER SAID SOMETHING IN THE NOVEL – some part of the story-line in which an eight-year-old girl in Northern Ireland is drawn towards taking a side – couldn't have happened. Several people who knew Belfast then but who now live in Australia have told me that that response would come no matter how convincingly I wrote the book. All of them stopped talking about Northern Ireland not long after migrating, because the stories they had to tell, though taken from their lives, were not believable here – not from somewhere like Northern Ireland, not from the UK, not from a country where most people look like most of us and speak English and say they're a Christian of one kind or another.

We want these stories to be untrue. We want them to be impossible in a place that seems not unlike our own. We need to believe that people who do bad things are as dissimilar to us as possible. And, if we believe that, we risk believing that people who seem different to us do bad things. We create demons; we burn mosques.

Perhaps unprecedented global communication should have been a moderating influence, but it doesn't seem to be. Hatreds, fears and the actions and messages of terrorists may all be amplified by news channels that give us 24 hours of pictures and stories, while ultimately overwhelming us with pictures and only ever giving us fragments of stories.

At the same time, other footage can be used to amplify the messages of extremists to their own people. For the first time, we live in a world in which billions of people have access to news as it's happening. All these billions of people also have access to the propaganda that looks like news, sometimes persuasively so, and we can expect all sides in any conflict to use propaganda. Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are each seen to embody evil in different parts of the world, and each claims a God-given kind of righteousness that leads others to sacrifice their lives.

That's how conflict has always been. There must be countless conflicts over the years in which each side has been reliably told that God is with them and the others eat their own babies – but perhaps the pervasiveness of television allows it to work differently now.

At the same time as this evolution in media coverage, we face a kind of maximum terrorism that is very difficult to counter. Instead of selecting military and infrastructure targets, some terrorists seem to have worked out that their terrorism comes with a different level of terror if they set out to kill large numbers of people who have no direct connection with their issues – commuters on buses, office workers, school children. We are particularly appalled by acts perpetrated against children, and it appears that that might now make them a target.

The siege in Beslan would have been an atrocity whatever the age of its victims, but would we have felt the same if it had involved a factory instead of a school? Would we have felt the same if it had been a munitions factory? Are we so used to terrorism that this is what it now takes to truly shock us and claim the front pages of our newspapers?

Children have always been victims of terrorism though, and of war – killed in crossfire or playing with unexploded bombs or as possible combatants, as well as being victims in far greater numbers in indirect ways. In No Bones, every nine-year-old in Northern Ireland in 1971 has to write a peace poem, but the central character, Amelia, is unable to do it because the concept of peace is too unfamiliar and she doesn't know anyone else who would know anything about it, either.


THE OTHER DEVELOPMENT IN TERRORISM, AND ONE THAT IS SOMETIMES LINKED to fundamentalism, is the terrorists' changed plans for their own futures. There is a difference between putting your life on the line for a cause and planning to sacrifice your life for it. When terrorists planted bombs and left the train, the empty briefcase was the sign that something was wrong. When terrorists took hostages, a big part of the negotiations used to be about the terrorists' escape.

It may be that counter-terrorism plans were based on the idea that terrorists would have exit strategies, so no one expected planes to fly into buildings. No one expected the terrorist to be the bomb. The scope for terrorism increases if no exit plan is needed, and it increases if the aim is to do the maximum possible indiscriminate harm.

Terrorism hasn't yet shown us what it can really do with chemicals or radioactive isotopes. It hasn't yet brought us the bombs that blow up the pumps that keep water out of the London Underground. It hasn't yet brought us the cohort of fanatics who inoculate themselves with ebola virus and then spend their last days in the transit lounges of the world's airports, letting loose an epidemic. But if it does, what war will have us ready for it?

That's why we need more than a war to counter terrorism. It's why we need to accept that terrorists are made, not born, and that they can come from anywhere. It's why we need to look at what it takes to make a terrorist, and we need to work on creating a world that presents its children with better things to believe in, and better opportunities – a world in which fewer people seek to give their lives purpose or meaning through killing and dying. But that will take gifted and committed leadership. It will take time and subtlety, and a preparedness for nations to address some of the world's great imbalances more conclusively. It will take a preparedness to listen. And, first, it will require us to start asking the right questions.

Such an approach should be seen as strength, not weakness. It is not appeasement, nor is it a replacement for attempting to bring to justice people who commit barbaric acts. We will wage our war against terrorism – that course of action appears set. But for the sake of children in schools, commuters on buses, workers in offices – for the sake of us all – it can't be all we do.  ♦

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