Terrorism and Our Children — Some Advice from Margaret Mead

 Thank you to Professor Edith King for this article. 

 Terrorism and Our Children — Some Advice from Margaret Mead

 Edith W. King, Professor

 Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

 The examination of culture is the primary concern of anthropologists and sociologists. The anthropologist, more than the sociologist, is aware of the range of cultures—from the simple, and so-called primitive systems, to the contemporary, more elaborate, and more complex so-called “civilized” systems. The cultural anthropologist forces us to recognize our cultural patterns by contrasting them with patterns found in smaller or earlier cultural forms. Among the most memorable and outstanding of these cultural anthropologists of the 20th century was Margaret Mead. My last memory of Margaret Mead comes from a recorded televised interview with her that appeared on a public television program. She was within a few months of dying. Her conversation was animated, and she talked knowingly of human issues ranging from the oppression of women to the problems of war. Here was no brooding soul turned inward by the thoughts of impending death. Here was a woman who gave the last moments of her life as energetically, as intelligently, and as openly as she had given the early years of her life. It was only at the end of the program that she revealed, for a second, her attitude toward life and work and death. After her talk she rose and then began to walk backward slowly, into the shadowy and dark recesses of the stage setting, still facing the camera. She smiled a charming smile, waved her cane, and said, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye”—knowing it was the final goodbye as she stepped into the darkness. It was an act, but it was a wonderful act. It summed up the way she lived, wrote, and felt about people. Margaret Mead’s name is still recognized by people who might not be able to name even one other major figure in the social sciences of the 20th Century. (Margaret Mead was born in 1901, just at the turn of the 20th century and she died in 1978 at age 77, still revered nationally and internationally).

 Cultural Artifacts and the Terrorist Threat

Now in the Post-9/11 world where the advent of a terrorist act is ever-present, there is the need to give our children vital information that can protect them in the neighborhood, on their way to visit and on their way home. The culture of the Post-9/11 world presents new challenges filled with technological aids, those cultural artifacts that Margaret Mead never dealt with.  The  anthropologist would label common items such as cell phones, smart phones, and backpacks of today’s popular culture as cultural artifacts. How crucial can these mundane objects become in a crisis such as a terrorist strike? The following account provides examples of the role that culture and cultural artifacts play when an unforeseen disaster strikes.

 Tragedy struck in London on July 7, 2005 with the disastrous bombing in Central London on one bus and in three of the Underground train cars, killing over fifty people and injuring hundreds more. Trains and transport across the United Kingdom were disrupted for days afterwards. The London bombings and the subsequent fears for further terrorist attacks caused anxiety and stress for all—adults, children, British citizens, internationals, and tourists alike. Within just a few days of the terrorist attack the British Red Cross launched a “London Bombings Education Resource Kit,” a series of lessons for students. This material was posted on their website and made available to educators and parents (www.redcross.org.uk/lbak). The resource kit was designed to help young people  think about and understand some of the practical and emotional issues raised by the London 2005 terrorist bomb attack on essential transportation facilities carried out in the heart of London at the weekday morning commuter rush hour. The British Red Cross kit was aimed at enabling adults to help their children understand the human aspects of the terror attacks, the priorities of the emergency services, and how people might behave after a major terrorist incident.

It also provided young people with practical steps that they could take to prepare for such emergencies. Among the practical information included was the best way to let family members know you are safe, how to act in the event of a terror attack, and to always follow the advice of the emergency services in the event of a major incident.

The material in the British Red Cross kit covers what to do, and what not to do, when discussing a terror attack, or in the rare event of one happening. This type of information helps young people appreciate that there are some practical steps they can take in response to what can seem a frightening threat of terrorism: that they may better understand what the priorities are for the emergency services during a major incident and why they do what they do, as well as the part they can play in responding to the emergency. This information also provides insight into how other people might behave during such an emergency. Some examples of the advice for useful responses during a terrorist attack and actions to be avoided are:

 Helpful: Use short and simple phone calls to your family if you are away from them. Check that they are safe and unhurt and let them know that you are safe. Use a cell phone or smart phone if you can, but recognize that at certain times cell phone networks may not be able to cope with the emergency situation. Prepare for any emergency by making a list of crucial phone numbers you might need and carry these phone numbers with you on all occasions. (During an emergency is not an appropriate time to suddenly realize you do not have those critical phone numbers).

 Not Helpful: Never phone the emergency phone line to ask about the safety of relatives or friends. This is a number reserved for genuine emergencies.

 Helpful: Look out for people behaving suspiciously and report suspect vehicles, packages, bags or backpacks, but do not go near them. Keep your own packages or bags with you at all times. Unattended bags can become a security incident.

 Not Helpful: Never, ever, joke about having a bomb in your book bag or backpack! Young people are sometimes tempted to do this. They perhaps feel nervous and tense and think a joke will relax people. It will not. In these days no one accepts jokes about bombs, and people who make them have faced serious criminal charges. (Excerpted from “The Assembly Kit” by P. J. White, Schools and Community Team, British Red Cross, 2005)

 From the perspective of the cultural anthropologist and the social scientist, cultural artifacts such as cell phones (smart phones) and backpacks take on unique and, in the Post-9/11 world, a crucial significance. Margaret Mead foresaw the coming of an age where our culture would need adults to prepare children and youth for an unknown world in which they would live. Mead named this the world of the “prefigurative” or culture of the future. That world is here today in Post-9/11. In her memorable lecture at Harvard University in 1950, titled “The School in American Culture” she stated:

 Like an elevator which insists on running backwards; age and experience become not orienting factors but disorienting ones, so that the teacher of twenty years’ experience may face her class less confidently than the teacher with only two….From the most all-embracing world image to the smallest detail of daily life the world has changed at a rate which makes the five-year-old generations further apart than world generations or even scores of generations from the past.

 (Mead, 1950, p. 32, 34)

 Drawing on her experiences and studies in societies throughout the world, Margaret Mead speculated that there is a distinct and growing generation gap—not only in developed, highly technological nations such as the United States, Britain, and the former Soviet Union (now Russia)—but also in developing nations, such as those of the Pacific Rim (China and India), and Middle East, specifically the Gulf Arabic States. She believed that youths the world over, are caught up in the same electronically produced, intercommunicating network that has socialized them into a universal culture their parents have never known and could never know. Further, this new generation faces a future shaped by terrorism, nuclear energy and weapons, satellites, computers and the Internet, rapid worldwide transport, rampant population growth, the disintegration of metropolitan areas, and the steady destruction of the environment. Do you think as Margaret Mead did,  that we have an unprecedented, global generation gap today?

References for the Writings of Margaret Mead

 Margaret Mead’s writings are wide ranging and extensive. Some of her best-known works are:

 And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (New York: Morrow, 1942).

Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (with Gregory Bateson) (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1942).

Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (New York: Morrow, 1972).

Childhood in Contemporary Cultures (Editor, with Martha Wolfenstein) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (New York: Morrow, 1928).

Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive People (Editor) (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937).

Cultural Patterns and Technical Change: A Manual Prepared by the World Federation for Mental Health (Editor) (Paris: UNESCO, 1953).

Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap (Garden City, NY: Natural History Press/Doubleday, 1970).

Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (New York: Morrow, 1930).

Male and Female: A Study of Sexes in a Changing World (New York: Morrow, 1949).

“Needed: Full Partnership for Women,” Saturday Review, June 14, 1975, p. 130-131.

 New Lives for Old: Cultural TransformationManus, 1928-1953 (New York: Morrow, 1956).

The School in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951).

 Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: Morrow, 1937).

 Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954).

Four Families (film for the National Film Board of Canada, Margaret Mead, producer) (New York: McGraw-Hill, distributor, 1959).

References for this article

            King, Edith W. Social Thought on Education.  Amazon : Kindle, 2011. 

            White, P. J. “The Assembly Kit.” The Schools and Community Team. British Red Cross. 44 Moorfields, London, EC2Y 9AL. U.K. 2005

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