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$1 for Afghan Children
A Presumption of Allegiance in a Nation’s Angry War

A letter from my daughter’s school arrived this week. It read: “President Bush’s speech on October 11th requested that each child donate $1 to the children of Afghanistan. [The school] is supporting that request by asking our children to bring their dollar to school next week and we will send one check on behalf of our school family with each child’s name to the White House. Please explain to your child the purpose of this generosity and the gift of being able to help others.”

We won’t be sending in the dollar. It isn’t that I oppose the idea of raising money for Afghan children. Even before this latest war, Afghans were among the worst- fed people on the planet. One Afghan child in four will die before age five because of malnutrition. The United Nations Children’s Fund is trying to raise $36 million immediately to address the crisis. For the first time in its history UNICEF is dedicating this year’s trick-or-treat campaign to the single cause of Afghan children, and it is that campaign our daughter will be taking part in as she goes door- to-door with her UNICEF box on Halloween.

The difference between UNICEF’s appeal and Bush’s? UNICEF’s is authentic. Bush’s is calculated. UNICEF is doing what it’s been doing for years in Afghanistan, where it’s been feeding 1 million people long before most Americans discovered that Afghans are more than pretty blankets for chilly autumn evenings. Bush is mobilizing every weapon at his disposal to fight his brave new war on terrorism. His appeal for donations, sincere as it may be, is one of those weapons, a master- stroke of propaganda aimed at the allegiances of suspicious Muslim masses from the Red Sea to Indonesia. It is geopolitical compassion, born a week ago, dead the moment American “objectives” are met. Afghan children, more than a few of whom will have been torn to shreds by American ordnance before this is over, have every reason to doubt the president’s motives when he manages to order the launch of Tomahawk missiles and B-52’s with one side of his mouth while fund-raising for their good health with the other.

I would have trouble explaining “the purpose of this generosity” to my child, as her school’s letter put it, without also explaining the hellfire, when both hellfire and generosity have the same return address. For that she’d have to understand geopolitics, and she’s only a second grader. There’ll be time, if not other wars.

The UNICEF option simplifies things for now. It is enough for her to know that she can help, that she will, and for us to keep her from being drafted through those pernicious appeals into a war none of us chose and some of us believe should not be fought, least of all with the innocent consent of our own children and on the collateral backs of others.

Which is why I found the school’s letter disturbing in one sense. It presumed unanimous allegiance to the White House fund-raiser rather than requested voluntary contributions, as fund-raisers normally do; and it put us in the position of having to explain to our child a “purpose” that is neither so simple nor so innocent.

Meaning well isn’t enough. There is solidarity and patriotism, which are wonderful things. And then there is manipulation. Adults are fair game. Children ought to be off limits—whether the White House is doing the nation’s bidding, or, far worse, whether our schools are.

 

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