Cohen's time in Middle East formed basis for Children of Jihad
Published 6:39 am, Thursday, November 11, 2010
When he graduated college, Cohen's inherent curiosity sent him on a trip to Iran to talk to opposition leaders, but his naiveté got him into trouble with the authorities. It was frightening enough to cause him to abandon his plans.
Instead, he decided to get to know his peers, "and to figure out how they function in the world." He headed to universities and spoke to students. What he learned was quite different from what he had read and heard on TV. Instead of the stereotypical images of fanatical Muslims who hated America, he met young men fascinated by Western culture and unhappy with their own government; however, they also had some very strange ideas about America.
They asked, was it dangerous to be a baby in America? He was shocked at such a bizarre question until he remembered that there had been several instances of baby snatching in California some years earlier. These stories were highly exaggerated and publicized on Iranian TV over and over. The perception was that this was a common thing in America.
"This," Cohen said, " is the equivalent of when we ask people if everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist."
His experiences with the young people made him realize they were more like him than they were different. They love music, movies, girls and fun.
Their sense of humor on a few occasions gave him serious pause. One example took place while he was chatting with a group of men at a Palestinian camp in Lebanon. He asked what they would do if a Jewish person came to visit them. They told him such a person wouldn't be allowed, but if one did come, they would cut off the person's head. Cohen said he immediately changed the subject to music. But, after an hour or so of friendly chatting, he said to them, "Would it surprise you if I told you I am Jewish?" There was dead silence, Cohen remembered. He then told them that he was Jewish. Their response, he said, was that they knew it all along and were just kidding him.
At a different camp, after he had talked to one of the Palestinian leaders, he was faced with what he described as a very frightening experience. Several men took him into a room, blindfolded and dressed him up like a suicide bomber. He was feeling more and more frightened until they all burst out laughing. He learned they did not mean to freak him out. It was simply their sense of humor.
Cohen told the audience that he was aware that many of his stories were anecdotal, but the significance of the stories, he said, "is that those experiences changed my view because I had thought one thing and then saw something else."
Moving on to when he began working for the U.S. State Department, he said he informed them that no matter what their purpose was, whether humanitarian, political or economic, it was imperative to think in terms of the world's largest demographics and their access to today's technology.
In Iran, 67 percent of people are under the age of 30, and more than 50 percent have cell phones. He told of asking several "kids" standing in busy intersections tapping on their cell phones what they were doing. They said, "Oh, this is where we use Bluetooth." At that point Cohen asked how many in the audience knew what Bluetooth is. Few people over 30 raised their hands. The young people were not doing anything sinister, he said. They were making social contacts. "I asked one," `Aren't you worried? You're doing this right in the open. Aren't you worried you're going to get caught?'" Cohen said they told him, nobody over 30 knows what Bluetooth is.
He came to the conclusion that a generation gap exists between young people who have been brought up with these technologies and an older generation which knows nothing about them. He knows there are downsides to both. The irony, he points out is, while free western societies use them for pleasure and business, the repressed societies have learned to use them innovatively.
He reminded the audience of the Iranian protests following what the young knew had been a fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The young Tweeted on their cell phones and, as a result, a huge protest in the streets followed. It also happened recently when the communist won in Moldova again. The youth Tweeted for people to get out into the streets and protest a phony election. A new election ousted the 50-year-old communist regime. When the Iranian girl Neda was murdered in Iran on the streets, someone videoed the death and it was flashed around the world in seconds.
This is the greatest change in history, Cohen said. Disenfranchised citizens with cell phones can defy governments by marshalling millions into the streets; news organizations are already threatened by citizens beating them to the punch, he said.
Cohen received a huge round of applause, particularly from students who attend Weston High School -- his alma mater.