Since time immemorial, humanity has been plagued by violence, from the barbaric, ruthless slavery imposed by colonial masters, to the unstable geopolitical scene before us today with war and terror never too far away. Violence exists on a spectrum and can be physical, emotional, or mental, taking many forms such as war, abuse, and bullying. In their formative years, as children are trying to make sense of their identity and the world around them, growing up exposed to violence is particularly pernicious. The world will eventually come to pay the price as children become pawns for extremist groups, significantly more predisposed to violence or apathetic to violence.
Children who grow up exposed to violence tend to be more easily swayed by extremist ideologies and often become pawns for terrorist organisations. On one hand, children growing up in war-torn areas tend to be directly exposed to extremist ideology. Having lived in fear and constant instability since young, many children do not view extremist groups as a threat, but rather as their protection from evil that conflict brings. Cognisant of the vulnerability of these children, extremist groups often promise protection from adversaries, the provision of basic necessities, and a sense of community. Many children and youths are hence recruited from war-torn regions to fight for extremist groups. Their constant exposure to violence makes them even more effective as soldiers as their sense of normalcy has been severely warped. During the 2003 Iraq war, the Islamic State (ISIS) found itself incredibly successful in recruiting child soldiers from war-torn Iraq as it promised to fight for Iraq from the invasion of the Americans, and not just food and a place to stay, but also to take care of their families as they fought for ISIS. On the other hand, minorities overseas who are faced with discrimination and violence in their home countries do not feel a sense of belonging and in turn develop a sense of resentment towards their home countries and a desperate need for a sense of community. For many years, ISIS was able to recruit teenage soldiers from Europe, particularly from countries such as France, which were strongly secular and denied the expressions of faith from Muslims which their religion conversely required. This strengthened ISIS’ presence in the Western world and particularly manipulated child soldiers for roles such as suicide bombers as they tended not to be viewed as threatening to others. As a result, many innocent lives were lost globally and fear gripped many nations as they desperately tried to combat the violent forces of terrorism.
Children who grew up exposed to violence in the form of domestic violence or bullying tend to be more predisposed to violence in the future. For decades, psychologists have warned of the harms of abuse and mental health disorders, ranging from mood disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to dissociative personality disorders. Children who grew up exposed to such violence tend to harbor a deep sense of insecurity, anger and fear. It becomes problematic as such violent tendencies fester unchecked through adolescence and these individuals inflict violence upon others as an outlet to cope with their pain and trauma, or simply for revenge. Many notorious serial killers such as Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Charles all have something in common – they were abused as children. According to a Federal Report from the United States Secret Service, the majority of school shooters were victims of bullying in their adolescence. Such violent crimes strike fear internationally as people attempt to grapple with the horrific reality of the depths of darkness that the human mind can possess. Such crimes cause widespread fear as people fear for their safety. While such crimes might be more prevalent in certain countries, it happens in every part of the world. In less extreme cases, such violence causes children to grow up having problems such as trust and abandonment issues, inflicting a similar degree of harm on their own children in the future, causing an unending cycle of hurt and pain, which could lead to deep trauma for many societies in future.
Furthermore, as children grow up witnessing violence, apathy towards such violence festers, which could cause social regression in the future. As stories after stories of violence and war are plastered across the news and shared over social media, individuals become desensitised to violence. Children, in particular, become numb to seeing such violence as they have become accustomed to hearing such stories since a young. From the various refugee crises in the mid-2010s, the alleged torture of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the Burmese military coup, the assassination of Soleimani, the Abu Ghraib tortures in Iraq, to the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis, children are no stranger to witnessing violence. Particularly with the burgeoning growth of social media, children are exposed to violence at an increasingly young age. Photos of gruesome violence such as lifeless bodies of refugee children washed ashore and corpses with bullet wounds going viral have become common occurrences with every conflict. Such atrocities no longer induce the same level of indignation and moral outrage as fatigue, helplessness, and apathy set in. Psychologists and humanitarians in the United Kingdom lament that the mainstream media is simply no longer able to humanise refugees because of the oversaturation of the media with tragic, violent news, amplifying the apathy amongst the Britons. Given existing trends, there is no telling how much further society will regress in terms of responding to humanitarian crises as apathetic children grow to be leaders of the future. Global humanity will eventually pay the ultimate price for such apathy.
Conversely, some may argue that the world, in fact, does not pay the price. Rather, it is the underprivileged communities that will pay the ultimate price for their children to grow up being exposed to violence. For the most extreme cases of violence, the individuals affected most immediately are not the children in the developed West with slight behavioural issues from exposure to violent video games for too long, but the refugee child who suffers intense PTSD from having his homeland bombed, having to flee in boats to other countries only to be turned away or having to see his family torn away from him at refugee centres. The sheer extent of harm is far worse in the poorer, war-torn societies than in richer, privileged parts of the world. While murders and abuse do happen, their impact on society is far less than a war. The fear that arises after a terrorist attack may be imminent, but to live every day in fear for your life is not a gut-wrenching experience most will understand. Even the cost of apathy is paid mostly by the refugees and the oppressed as they fight for their lives.
While that may be true, and the price paid is disproportionate, I would posit that the world still pays the price as such underprivileged individuals belong to collective global humanity. The suffering of these individuals is no less a loss to the global community. I would further argue that even though in an absolute sense, the hurt to the privileged parts of the world might be less, but pain and hurt are subjective. The fear that arises in the aftermath of a violent conflict and crisis is rarer, but it impacts people symmetrically as it serves as a painful reminder that nobody is truly safe from the evil of humanity. In the aftermath of the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas High School school shootings, intense grief was felt not only by the communities affected but the entire nation. Following the 2021 River Valley High School murder in Singapore, the fear, confusion, and hurt among the nation was palpable. The suffering of one cannot simply be undermined by being compared to the pain felt by another. All individuals all suffer in various capacities, everyone is paying a price of his or her own, causing the price that is paid to be very much global in nature.
Growing up exposed to violence has become a regrettable, but undeniable, aspect of childhood today. Growing up either directly bearing the burden of violence or facing the burden of helplessness when witnessing the globally evident pandemic of violence, our children today will grow up bearing such a weight that they will never be able to shake. And as the world has shown children no mercy and exposed them to this violence, the world will come to pay the ultimate price for its violence.