Politics & Policy

What To Do with Islamist Toddlers

Be wary of tasking teachers with screening for “radicalization.”

In the British city of Luton, two young children have been taken away from their “jihadi” mother after the government became concerned that “they were being brainwashed into Islamic extremism.” The pair, the Daily Mail records, “were taken into police protection . . . after travelling to the UK from Istanbul.” This, the paper adds somewhat darkly, “is understood to be the first case in which authorities have seized children from their parents over fears they were being radicalised.”

Whatever one thinks of this particular action — or of the potentially alarming precedent that it apparently sets — it is at least generally agreed upon that at a certain point a parent can forfeit his right to raise his children. For a while now, the British intelligence services have suspected that the mother in the case was linked to “Takfiri militants operating in Syria,” that she is guilty of various “terrorism offences,” and that, by traveling with them to Istanbul and beyond, she has exposed her children to radicals and their ideas. Is this enough to justify the move? Perhaps, yes. Certainly, there must be ample room within the judicial system for the government to be reprimanded if it is wrong. Certainly, we should demand that the rules governing the seizure of children be tightly defined and consistently enforced. And, “brainwashed” being an inherently subjective term, we might insist that our representatives limit to a few the circumstances in which one’s ideology can be used as a justification for one’s punishment. Still, on the face of it, the state may well have a case here, and I would suggest that the skeptics keep their powder dry until we know more.

It is rarely the first step onto new ground that causes the real trouble, however. Rather, it is what typically follows on. Indeed, no sooner had the British government opened its new chapter than it had announced its intention to search for other would-be subversives, wherever they might be hiding. “Nurseries,” the Mail confirms, “are being urged to screen toddlers who display fanatical views.” Meanwhile, “Home Office guidance has been issued to teachers to who are expected ‘to have the training they need to identify children at risk of radicalization.’” Well, then.

All in all, this does not quite come up to the level of asking the citizens to inform on their neighbors, but it is still a little too redolent of the “see something, say something” approach for my tastes. It is one thing for a nation in crisis to encourage the citizenry to be on the lookout for German spies, or for Irishmen boasting about planting bombs, or wannabe martyrs who are using their local mosque as a recruitment and training tool; but it is quite another for the state to recruit as its informants those men and women who have been charged with taking care of the country’s toddlers. Are staff “supposed to report some toddler who comes in praising a preacher deemed to be extreme?” the Conservative MP, David Davis, inquired derisively in the Telegraph this week. “I don’t think so.”

In all likelihood they will not, which raises a rather important question: What, exactly, does the government expect will change under this heightened level of suspicion? Had a child come into a British daycare a few weeks ago boasting that his parents were hoping to blow up a subway train or to move the whole family to Mesopotamia in search of honey and virgins, would his teachers not have made further inquiries? Answer: Of course they would. In practice, then, all this change can possibly mean is that the evidence required for a referral will henceforth be a little weaker — a risky outcome to invite, even presuming the best of intentions on the part of all involved. The road to McCarthyism is always a long and a complex one, sure. But I daresay that we should be a touch nervous of any policy that threatens to rest our playrooms on a hair-trigger, to encourage distracted staff to see signs that simply do not exist, or to sully the more creative of our kids’ concessions to fancy.

When I was a little boy, I liked to regale my pre-school teachers with all sorts of stories that, not really understanding the world around me, I had honestly misunderstood. On one occasion, I explained that my father liked to fly around the mountains in a helicopter shooting things for a foreign government — a relatively alarming claim, I would imagine. The truth I had failed to grasp: That my Dad, who had been in the Air Force, was at the time working on a production video for the government of Gibraltar and was required to fly by helicopter to the top of the rock while a camera crew “shot footage.”

I’m not entirely sure how those who had been trusted to act in loco parentis should have been expected to filter this information, and I’m equally unsure how they should be asked to go about it today. But presume for a moment that a brown-skinned, contemporary version of four-year-old me were to say exactly the same thing to a teaching assistant in Peckham. Can we honestly say that the new “training” could not end up inviting its adherents to do little more than indulge in a nervous bout of profiling? “Kids say the darndest things,” the old saw has it. Are Britain’s schools really to start mining them for signs of insurrection?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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