WASHINGTON -- When it sailed from Simon's Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 25, 1852, under the command of Capt. Robert Salmond, the British paddle wheel frigate HMS Birkenhead was loaded with more than 640 men, women and children. Mostly, however, the passengers were British soldiers, their horses and ammunition. Their destination was Algoa Bay, South Africa, as reinforcements for Sir Harry Smith in the eighth campaign of the Kaffir War.
Several hours after sailing, the Birkenhead struck a rock at Danger Point in the dead of night and was instantly in distress. While many of the military men sleeping below decks drowned immediately, others who reached the main deck were told to maintain order and discipline. As the ship took on water at a brisk pace, the lifeboats were lowered, but only three of them could be used because of mechanical problems. Though he did not utter the phrase as we know it today, it was at this point in the disaster that Salmond instituted the great maritime emergency tradition to save women and children first. His troops assisted the women and children on the sinking vessel in boarding the few available lifeboats, and all of them were rescued eventually. Most of the soldiers and sailors went down with the ship.
The natural instinct of civilized human beings is to protect those who are more vulnerable in the face of danger. Civilized cultures have placed women on a pedestal not because they are less capable but because we honor them and hold them in a special place in our society.
Not so with radical Islamists. They treat women as chattel and they abuse children. Just as it is becoming increasingly incumbent upon the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their government and their future, it is increasingly imperative that responsible Muslims take a stand for human decency.
As al-Qaida's prospects for military victory continue to sink in Iraq, the terrorists there have turned Salmond's time-honored tradition of chivalry and honor on its head.
Last week, Iraqi terrorists outfitted two Muslim women with Down syndrome with IEDs and dispatched them into a busy al-Ghazi pet market in Baghdad's Jadida section. When the women reached a location where their bomb-laden bodies would cause the greatest carnage, the IEDs were detonated remotely by a cowardly Islamic radical. Apparently, al-Qaida is running short of mentally competent volunteers who want to murder fellow Muslims in the process of becoming "martyrs" for Allah.
In the aftermath of the attack, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that this atrocity had been perpetrated by "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements" and said it will strengthen Iraqi resolve to reject terrorism.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.