Every day, kids come home from school to play, often to play war, boys especially. Last week in Gaza, three young teenage boys came home from school, dutifully left notes for their parents, picked up knives, an ax, and some homemade firecracker "pipe bombs," and set off to war with their Israeli neighbors.
Intercepted by armed (and armored) Israeli soldiers occupying their town, the youngsters were immediately shot and tanks driven over their bodies.
As the tragedy washed over the neighborhood, a reporter heard an 11-year-old say that he wanted to follow the older boys' example.
The obscene violence in these communities is now at such depths that no one Palestinian or Israeli, soldier or civilian appears able to redirect three adolescents back to their parents. Everyone is playing war, children and adults, with "shoot to kill" the only rule.
It was not supposed to be like this. The investment in a war on terrorism was intended to move the world up toward a new era of civility, not push us further down the slope of violence.
Shocked by the Sept. 11 atrocities, the United States set out to get away from mindless killing. Countries around the world, many coping with their own problems of ruthless violence, applauded President Bush's decision to skip a quick military reprisal in favor of a dual strategy of destroying today's terrorist organizations and preventing future ones.
With its combat in Afghanistan, police raids, detainees, and financial intercepts, the "destroy" side of this international campaign pushes forward. It is on the crucial "prevent" side where the US seems to be losing ground, especially in the main arena, the Middle East.
If there is anywhere that a strategy of prevention must succeed, it is among the Arab citizens of the Middle East. It is they whom Osama bin Laden wished to incite; it is they who will or will not be able to turn their children away from war.
Yet a recent State Department analysis of polls among Americans and Muslims confirms that distrust is deepening on each side. Muslims still see the US as a land of opportunity and high technology, but both Muslims and Americans agree that the image of America the America leading the global war on terrorism is negative and worsening.
The bottom line: America is losing the initiative. It is not on the path to a new era where 11-year-olds study math, not pipe bombs, after school.
How did the United States get into this fix? Can it be turned around?
Although early on, Bush took care to visit a mosque and speak of Islam as a religion of peace, it appears that those bridge-building intentions are blocked by a theory of "Arab rage" now ascendant in Washington. In this portrait, the modern Arab feels trapped in a failing society. Ripe for recruiting, he or she enlists in a fundamentalist movement promising a return to an earlier era of purity to be achieved as soon as Islam's corrupting enemies are destroyed.
For all its appeal to a Western public, the Arab rage idea is an especially dangerous premise for American policy toward the Arab-Muslim world. To believe that Arabs are a breed of humans somehow too primitive or Muslim society too deformed to "catch up" is to enlist in bigotry, not strategy.
Worse, to subscribe to the idea that this mythic rage must find its outlet in violence toward the West is to reduce our global campaign against terrorism our campaign for civility to an exercise in fortress-building at a time when Sept. 11 should have taught us conclusively that there are no more fortresses.
Even more dangerous would be to conclude that the emotional acts of children in a combat zone represent not the universal human instinct to help one's family and community in crisis, but a defective Arab gene for self-destructive violence that can be met only with repression.
Yet these seem to be the sentiments beginning to loom over Washington strategy circles.
Writing in the grim interval between two horrendously violent world wars, Franz Kafka warned that war stems "from a monstrous lack of imagination" man so beset by his demons that he can't imagine the suffering of others. Without lessening any admiration for Israel, America must come not only to a felt understanding of Arab suffering, but to a genuine appreciation for a great people whose ambitions for peace equal America's.
Washington insists it is leading a global campaign against terrorists. It will succeed only in leading the US into a global war against Islam unless policymakers can rapidly bring themselves to the recognition that the Arabs including their teenage boys are part of the worldwide solution, not part of the problem.
Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes and consults about contemporary war and peace as chair of The Strategy Group.