It was the haunting image of a misguided 15-year-old Palestinian boy – a would-be suicide bomber with eight kilograms of explosives strapped to his chest – that sent human rights attorney Brooke Goldstein on an entirely different career path.
The 31-year-old Toronto native was studying to be an entertainment lawyer at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York in 2004 when she saw a news report that shook her to her core.
“I was in my second year of law school taking an elective course called human rights and the child,” Goldstein recalled.
“I came home and I sat on my couch with my homework, turned on my TV and I saw this image of a 15-year-old physically [stunted], rumoured to be mentally handicapped [boy, who] had his arms in the air and he had this explosive belt strapped around his waist.”
She said at that point, in 2004, adult male suicide bombers were not a new phenomenon, but this was the first time she’d seen a child converted into a human bomb.
“It was reprehensible and egregious, and I was shocked,” Goldstein said.
Hussam Abdo had been sent by the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades to the Hawara checkpoint out of Nablus in the West Bank to kill Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint.
But at the last minute, Abdo either got caught by the soldiers or turned himself in to the Israel Defence Forces because he decided he didn’t want to die (reports vary).
Abdo was tried and convicted of attempted murder and is serving what is left of his eight-year prison sentence in an Israeli jail. When Goldstein learned that Abdo had been convicted, it didn’t sit right with her.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, we learn about [African] child soldiers and we learn about them as victims. Surely, a child suicide bomber is as much a victim of an egregious form of child abuse as are child soldiers in Africa,’” she said.
“I didn’t think he deserved to pay for the crimes of the adults who recruited him. On the other hand, Israelis are stuck between a rock and hard place because once they captured this child, they have a fiduciary duty over him. They can’t just release him back into a society that just tried to kill him.”
This dilemma compelled Goldstein to learn more about the glamorization of martyrdom and the lack of coverage in the mainstream media about the murder of Muslim men and women in Islamic society.
She said she raised some money, teamed up with a producer and travelled to Palestinian cities, including Jenin and Ramallah, to conduct interviews with leaders of terrorist organizations and families of suicide bombers.
These interviews resulted in an award-winning 2006 documentary called The Making of a Martyr, which examines the state-sponsored indoctrination and recruitment of Palestinian children for suicide attacks.
“A big part of being a martyr is the 15 minutes of fame aspect. When you become a suicide bomber, you become a hero. You’re in music videos, there are schools named after you, streets are named after you, people worship you, there are posters of you all over the place,” she said.
“I was talking with teenaged fighters who don’t necessarily understand the concept of death because they’ve been brainwashed to think they’re going to heaven.”
She said when her documentary began gaining recognition and winning awards, she took a year off after completing her law degree to screen her film at various film festivals.
“I became sort of de facto spokesperson for this phenomenon of child suicide bombers just because no one else was talking about it.”
Taking advantage of the momentum that resulted from the film, in 2007 Goldstein founded the Children’s Rights Institute, a non-profit organization that tracks and legally combats violations of children’s basic human rights, with a special focus on child suicide-homicide bombers, child soldiers, and the phenomenon of human shields.
Goldstein caught the attention of the Middle East Forum founder Daniel Pipes, who hired her to run an arm of the organization called the Legal Project, which arranges pro-bono and reduced rate council for people wrongfully sued for speaking about issues of national security.
Goldstein, who directed the Legal Project for two years, said people who have the courage to speak out against terrorism and militant Islam are being sued in Europe and North America as a ploy to intimidate them into silence.
“They were doing this to intimidate them, to bankrupt them, to create a chilling effect on free speech about issues of national security,” she said.
“I coined the term ‘Islamist lawfare,’ as a weapon of war, as a manipulation of the legal system to impose tenets of sharia law.”
Goldstein currently directs the Lawfare Project, an organization that addresses the manipulation of legal systems – a strategy she feels is being employed to “delegitimize the rights of sovereign states such as Israel and the United States, and… to frustrate and hinder the ability of western democracies to fight against and defeat terrorism.”
Goldstein’s latest project is a book she co-authored last year, titled Lawfare Against Free Speech: A First Amendment Guide For Reporting in an Age of Islamist Lawfare, which gives practical guidance to journalists who want to write about national security threats.
“There were so many people calling and e-mailing me, expressing a desire to write about what’s happening, and yet they were afraid… and wanted to know how to legally protect themselves.”
Just last year, U.S. Representative Peter King (R-New York), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a series of congressional hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims.
“He put Somali parents on the stand to testify with tears in their eyes about how their children were practically being kidnapped by Al Qaeda – these are American-born Muslim children. They’re being flown across borders and trained to become terrorists.”
Goldstein said she was disgusted when media outlets labelled King as “Islamophobic” for advocating for the protection of Muslim children.
She said since her documentary was released in 2006, the phenomenon of child suicide bombers has become more widespread in the Middle East and has reached the West as well.
But she refuses to be discouraged and will continue to spread the word.
Goldstein plans to release two more books – one is a companion to her first book, which informs students who face antisemitism and other forms of discrimination on campus of their rights.
The second book she described as a memoir about her experience while filming The Making of a Martyr.
Goldstein said she’s hoping to produce another film on the subject of terrorism and has ambitions to establish a Canadian chapter of the Lawfare Project.
For more information or to join Goldstein in her fight against terrorism, visit the Lawfare Project and/or the Children’s Rights Institute websites for internship opportunities.