It was one of those distinctive Newsweek covers — the ones that catch your eye immediately, piques your interest, but in the end don't hold up to prolonged scrutiny. The Jan. 22 cover showed a very young boy, clearly of Middle Eastern origin, holding a man-sized gun against a white background below the headline: "The Next Jihadists." The word "next," like the Newsweek banner itself, was set off from the generally black and gray surrounding type by its deep scarlet coloring.
Striking, yes, but what about that scrutiny? Who is this child? It was noted, in a tiny caption stuck in the lower left corner of the cover, that this boy held that weapon at a Baghdad protest in December 2006. Okay, fair enough. But when you turned to the story, there was no such young boy profiled, though one young weaponless youngster was caught in another photo peering at an American infantry man in full regalia.
Instead, in the lead, we were greeted by Ammar, a 17-year-old (admittedly young enough) who said he was proud to be carrying a gun. Christian Caryl, the reporter, noted that Ammar's father "was a brigadier in Saddam Hussein's Army, a man who saw combat in his country's several wars, and from an early age [the youngster] had accompanied him to the shooting range. 'I got used to the sound of guns then,' Ammar says. So he was ready, last fall, when the imam in his Baghdad neighborhood urged residents to take up arms against the invader — who in this case happened to be members of the Shiite militia trying to push into the predominately Sunni area."
The boy who was pictured across from the opening passages was not Ammar, but an unnamed 13-year-old Shiite who, we were told, was standing guard at a checkpoint in East Baghdad. This mixing of ages and names was manipulative and questionable, but there was little doubt it was an audience-grabber.
There was also little doubt that what was reported in the article seemed indisputable, even from the safe distance of America.
Writes Caryl: "Sectarian warfare is reshaping Iraq in all sorts of malevolent ways day in and day out. But it is also forging the future by poisoning the next generation of Iraqis. Like many of its neighbors, Iraq is a young country: nearly half the population is under the age of 18. And those children have had a particularly turbulent upbringing. Kids like Ammar were born in the aftermath of one debilitating war, against neighboring Iran, then suffered two others and years of impoverishing sanctions in between. They are especially vulnerable to the demons that now grip Iraq.
"Hassan Ali, a sociologist at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, estimates that at least 1 million Iraqi kids have seen their lives damaged by the war — they've lost parents and homes, watched as their communities have been torn apart by sectarian furies. 'These children will come to believe in the principles of force and violence,' says Ali. 'There's no question that society as a whole is going to feel the effects in the future …' "