Zoe Pilger: Generation Apathy has woken up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of all the carnage to come from a war in Iraq, one positive element has emerged. Young people of my generation are becoming more and more politicised.

Of all the carnage to come from a war in Iraq, one positive element has emerged. Young people of my generation are becoming more and more politicised. You can see it around you. It is now normal for me to overhear 14-year-olds discussing the pros and cons of military intervention, on the bus on the way home from school. Badges carrying anti-war slogans, such as "Not In My Name" are appearing on the lapels of school blazers and ties. It is common to turn on the television and see students under the age of 18 defying their teachers, waving banners and megaphones, and protesting in Parliament Square.

"Generation apathy" has officially woken up. This is much to the dismay of the British media who have long cherished the view that young people are indifferent to politics. We would rather, if you believe what you read, vote for our favourite contestant on some brain-dead reality TV show such as Big Brother than for our choice of prime minister in the next general election. Reporters such as Andrew Marr of the BBC have dismissed the massive growth of school students' direct action against the war with back-handed comments like: "Well, it beats doing your homework."

A new anger has arisen, fed by other issues that affect our lives, such as the proposed top-up fees for students. For the first time young people are asking how it is that the Government cannot afford to send our generation to university without loading them with up to £21,000 of debt? And yet it can afford to spend untold billions on a war against a country which poses no immediate threat.

For many of us, such priorities are wrong. This is also the first major war in our living memory, and there are no "grey area" justifications, like there were in Afghanistan, when we were supposed to believe that searching for an evil baddie in caves was enough reason to level a starving Third World country. Young people are not buying the tenuous argument that Iraq has links with al-Qa'ida, or is about to launch a nuclear attack on us. Young people are not responding to the crude hyperbole of President Bush, the buzz words, "weapons of mass destruction", and "axis of evil". And they are rejecting the arrogant single-mindedness of Tony Blair, who is insistent on ignoring the cries from every aspect of opinion – from his own party, other EU countries, the UN weapons inspectors and, most significantly, his own public – that diplomacy should come first.

On Thursday, the morning after the first bombs were dropped on Baghdad, a school friend and I organised a mass demonstration in protest against the war. It was incredibly successful, with about 500 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, from our London comprehensive taking part. We had speeches and poems read out, also by students, and a colourful array of home-made banners. The message voiced by those who took part was simple: "War is not the answer."

We do not want to grow up in a world in which the business interests of men sitting in Whitehall define our futures. We are now educated more than ever before, and yet, through excessive examinations and syllabus control, there is very little room for discussion. It is a paradox in today's education system that young people will learn more, but think less

And yet, through this war, we are being taught to think. The increase in press attention to the anti-war movement from wide circulation papers such as The Mirror and The Independent has helped us become more shrewd in reinterpreting the propaganda and lies in other parts of the media. For example, students from my school strongly opposed to the war dismissed the front-page and government calls to "support our boys in the Gulf". As one 15-year-old campaigner observed: "I'll support the troops when they start coming home."

Rather, young people, instead of exhibiting a blinkered and xenophobic approach to the outside world, are making links between their own lives and those of the Iraqi people – who are facing a danger that has been imposed by the West. It is a well-documented figure in the young anti-war movement that 42 per cent of the Iraqi population are under 15. As one student shouted from our school stage on Thursday: "We're not going to die, so why should they?"