The New York Times, in its May 28, 2021 issue, published a collage of photographs of 67 children under the age of 18 who had been killed in the recent Israeli air attacks on Gaza and by Hamas on Tel Aviv. Two of the children had been killed in Israel by shrapnel from rockets fired by Hamas. It is only natural for any normal human being to ask, how can one kill children?

Similar collages appear every year on social media of the over 140 students who were mercilessly gunned down in 2014 at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The killings were carried out by the militant organisation the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Most Pakistanis could not comprehend how even a militant group could massacre school children. But there were also those who questioned why the children were targeted.

The ‘why’ in this context is apparently understood at an individual level when certain individuals sexually assault children and often kill them. Psychologists are of the view that such individuals — paedophiles — are mostly men who have either suffered sexual abuse as children themselves, or are overwhelmed by certain psychological disorders that lead to developing questionable sexual urges.

In the 1982 anthology Behaviour Modification and Therapy, W.L. Marshall writes that paedophilia co-occurs with low self-esteem, depression and other personality disorders. These can be because of the individual’s own experiences as a sexually abused child or, according to the 2008 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research, paedophiles may have different brain structures which cause personality disorders and social failings, leading them to develop deviant sexual behaviours. 

But why do some paedophiles end up murdering their young victims? This may be to eliminate the possibility of their victims naming them after the assault, or the young victims die because their bodies are still not developed to accommodate even the most basic sexual acts. According to a 1992 study by the Behavioural Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US, some paedophiles can also develop sadism as a disorder, which eventually compels them to derive pleasure by inflicting pain and killing their young victims. 

Why did Israel kill so many children in its bombardment of Gaza? Could it be that it has something in common with apocalyptic terror groups, for whom killing children is simply collateral damage in a divinely ordained cosmic battle?

Now the question is, are modern-day governments, militaries and terrorist groups that knowingly massacre children, also driven by the same sadistic impulses? Do they extract pleasure from slaughtering children? It is possible that military massacres that include the death of a large number of children are acts of frustration and blind rage by soldiers made to fight wars that are being lost. 

The March 1968 ‘My Lai massacre’, carried out by US soldiers in Vietnam, is a case in point. Over 500 people, including children, were killed in that incident. Even women who were carrying babies in their arms, were shot dead. Just a month earlier, communist insurgents had attacked South Vietnamese cities held by US forces. The insurgents were driven out, but they were able to kill a large number of US soldiers. Also, the war in Vietnam had become unpopular in the US. Soldiers were dismayed by stories about returning US marines being insulted, ridiculed and rejected at home for fighting an unjust and immoral war. 

Indeed, desperate armies have been known to kill the most vulnerable members of the enemy, such as children, in an attempt to psychologically compensate for their inability to fight effectively against their adult opponents. But what about the Israeli armed forces? What frustrations are they facing? They have successfully neutralised anti-Israel militancy. And the Palestinians and their supporters are no match against Israel’s war machine. So why did Israeli forces knowingly kill so many Palestinian children in Gaza?

A May 21, 2021 report published on the Al-Jazeera website quotes a Palestinian lawyer, Youssef al-Zayed, as saying that Israeli forces were ‘intentionally targeting minors to terrorise an entire generation from speaking out.’ Ever since 1987, Palestinian children have been in the forefront of protests against armed Israeli forces. The children are often armed with nothing more than stones.

What Israel is doing against its Arab population, and in the Palestinian Territories that are still largely under its control, can be called ‘democide.’ Coined by the American political scientist Rudolph Rummel, the word democide means acts of genocide by a government/ state against a segment of its own population. Such acts constitute the systematic elimination of people belonging to minority religious or ethnic communities. According to Rummel, this is done because the persecuted communities are perceived as being ‘future threats’ by the dominant community. 

So, do terrorist outfits such as TTP, Islamic State and Boko Haram, for example, who are known to also target children, do so because they see children as future threats?

In a 2018 essay for the Journal of Strategic Studies, the forensic psychologist Karl Umbrasas writes that terror outfits who kill indiscriminately can be categorised as ‘apocalyptic groups.’ According to Umbrasas, such groups operate like ‘apocalyptic cults’ and are not restrained by the socio-political and moral restraints that compel non-apocalyptic militant outfits to only focus on attacking armed, non-civilian targets. Umbrasas writes that apocalyptic terror groups justify acts of indiscriminate destruction through their often distorted and violent interpretations of sacred texts.

Such groups are thus completely unrepentant about targeting even children. To them the children, too, are part of the problem that they are going to resolve through a ‘cosmic war.’ The idea of a cosmic war constitutes an imagined battle between metaphysical forces — good and evil — that is behind many cases of religion-related violence.

Interestingly, this was also how the Afghan civil war of the 1980s between Islamist groups and Soviet troops was framed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The cosmic bit evaporated for the three states after the departure of Soviet troops, but the idea of the cosmic conflict remained in the minds of various terror groups in the region. 

The moral codes of apocalyptic terror groups transcend those of the modern world. So, for example, on May 9 this year, when a terrorist group targeted a girls’ school in Afghanistan, killing 80, it is likely it saw girl students as part of the evil side in the divinely ordained cosmic war that the group imagines itself to be fighting.

This indeed is the result of a psychotic break from reality. But it is a reality that apocalyptic terror outfits do not accept. To them, this reality is a social construct. There is no value of the physical human body in such misshaped metaphysical ideas. Therefore, even if a cosmic war requires the killing of children, it is just the destruction of bodies, no matter what their size. 

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 6th, 2021

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