Too young to resist ISIS, but old enough to vote?
Politicians’ view of 16-year-olds is schizophrenic.
A common narrative has emerged in the reporting of teenagers running away from their British homes to join the Islamic State. We now invariably read of ‘brainwashed’, ‘runaway schoolgirls’, ‘boys’ and ‘vulnerable girls’ seduced and ‘enticed’ by the ‘slick propaganda’ of IS terrorists. ‘Academically bright’, as the Daily Mail, quoting a source, described the three teenagers who absconded from east London, ‘but naive and vulnerable’.
So far, more than 600 British jihadists have left for Syria and Iraq. When these accounts are personalised in the media, it has become mandatory to write of ‘anguished parents’ worried about their misguided progeny. At the weekend, two 17-year-old Muslims from Brent in north-west London were intercepted in Istanbul, thanks to ‘a tip-off from desperate parents’, as The Times reported. (A third man, aged 19, and also from London, was intercepted alongside the Brent duo.) Not a comment article goes by without the obligatory reference to the Beatles song ‘She’s Leaving Home’, a lament about absconded youth and bewildered, despairing mothers and fathers.
How strange, then, that we should decry the brainwashing of ‘impressionable’ 17-year-olds when we live in a country which last year gave the vote to 16- and 17-year olds. So far this applies only in Scotland, yet in August 2013 the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, announced Labour’s commitment to lowering the voting age to 16 throughout the UK. So are 16-year-olds capable of making rational decisions or not?
Politicians and some on the left invariably enthuse about lowering the age of the franchise because it encourages ‘engagement’. Helen Whitehouse wrote recently in the Daily Mirror that ‘young people will vote for things they believe in, if they are given the opportunity… [Y]oung people are engaged with politics – interested and listening.’ Or lowering the age is justified on moronic utilitarian grounds. ‘Getting the public into the habit of voting is clearly a key part of any solution if we are to raise the numbers of those who participate in elections’, said Khan earlier this year.
Yet, as the case with our adolescent aspirant jihadists illustrates, interest, sincerity and passion do not equate to maturity or reasoned judgment. A new book, The Teenage Brain, by Frances E Jensen, is but the latest addition to a plethora of research and literature that supports the argument that teenagers do not have the same capacity for reason, or long-term thinking, as adults. They are hormonal, creatures of sexual impulse. Tantrums, irrational outbursts and foolish decisions are what we should expect from teenagers. Their academic intelligence far exceeds their emotional intelligence, which is the cause of much teenage frustration. It should horrify us that some youths are duped into joining the scheming psychopaths of IS, but it shouldn’t surprise us.
There is much confusion today as to when childhood stops and adulthood begins. On the one hand we have a Peter Pan ‘kidult’ generation who might work in a toy-strewn office that resembles a child’s nursery. On the other, as The Times reported on Tuesday – as part of its campaign to raise awareness of children’s mental-health issues – we have prepubescents increasingly diagnosed as suffering from traditional adult malaises. The children’s charity Place2Be reports the number of children treated for anorexia aged under 12 has risen from 66 a decade ago to 119 in the past year. The number of children aged 10 to 14 admitted to hospital for self-harm has almost doubled in the past decade, from 3,337 in 2004 to 5,953 last year. Headlines about the ‘sexualisation of children’ are seldom absent from the news: there is now even talk of giving five-year-olds sex-education lessons.
The press is prone to talk of these fugitive British teenagers in rather sickly terms, in terms of ‘vulnerability’ and being ‘impressionable’, discourse that is now regrettably common when talking of humanity in general (think health campaigns, in particular). Yet, when it comes to teenagers – ‘pre-adults’, as Philip K Dick might have called them – such language is entirely appropriate. Teenagers are vulnerable and impressionable. We, who were teenagers once, remember this well. Adolescents are impulsive, irresponsible and immature – quite literally – which is part of the fun of being one.
Yes, let’s protect impressionable teenagers. But if only we could apply this clear and consistent thinking when it came to political discourse. The kind of naive people so easily duped into joining a lunatic death cult are not really the type that should be able to decide who the next government might be.
Patrick West is a writer and journalist. Visit his blog here.
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