Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has become the face of the climate wars, reminds me of another child I saw dominate international debate: Elian Gonze¡lez.
Years ago, I watched as that little boy got sucked into political posturing. On one side, which initially included me, were the people who thought this child who had almost drowned in a desperate attempt to come to America should be reunited with his father, a Castro loyalist. On the other side, to which I ultimately gravitated, there were those who wanted this child to live in freedom.
As we all know, Gonzalez was sent back to his home country, and he is still well-known today. He also joined the Communist Party as a teenager. It’s hard to say how that would look in the eyes of his mother, who gave her life so he could escape the regime he now supports.
Regardless of where you thought Gonzalez should have ended up, it’s clear he was used by forces greater than himself. The 5-year-old became hostage to political interests that had stewed for generations. Those who said they cared for his welfare might have even been sincere. But there’s no question they were also motivated by more selfish, diametrically opposed purposes: to duel over communism. Elian Gonzalez was not the first child to be used by adults, and he won’t be the last.
In fact, we now we have another famous child whose value rests in her ability to be manipulated: Greta Thunberg. Over the past year, she has captivated the attention of the Pope, diplomats, and even Twitter-crazy presidents. Last week, Thunberg addressed the United Nations where she launched an angry attack against the delegates: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
President Trump was not impressed, and observed, tongue in tweet: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
Others were not quite as coy, referring to Thunberg’s Asperberg’s diagnosis as a “mental illness” and mocking her passion as misplaced. On the other hand, she’s being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Like Gonzalez, Thunberg is being used by people with an agenda - also like the children of Parkland who have allowed themselves to become go-to spokespersons for gun control. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly support any methods to reduce the bloodshed of mass shootings. I was also very vocal in my desire to keep Gonzalez in a democratic society, after initially sympathizing with his father. We cannot divorce politics from our personal emotions - they are as intertwined as the double helix of our DNA.
But I am ashamed to see how often we force children to the front lines in these culture wars, using them as human shields - analogous to the way terrorists use babies to absorb and deflect injuries intended for them alone. You might be outraged that I would put gun control activists, anti-communists, or climate activists in the same sentence as terrorists, but the principle of using children to make our points is an old and effective one, regardless of the underlying agenda.
Adults may think that by putting children front and center, they are either shaming their opponents into silence, or underlining the urgency of their crusades by exposing how grown-ups are ruining the future for the next generation. Greta Thunberg said as much when she accused the UN delegates of stealing “my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” It’s hard to look at a child and not feel that there are some burdens they should be spared.
Another child who became the face of a movement almost lost her life, education activist Malala Yousafzai. While I praise her engagement and honor her courage, I have come to the conclusion that she, too, is a victim of adult crusades. Society should fight battles for our children, not on their backs.
It is not the adults at the UN who stole Greta Thunberg’s childhood. It’s all of us.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at email@example.com.