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.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the attack saying, "The terrorists' use of a mentally deranged woman has uncovered the lowly ethics of these criminal gangs and their deceit and animosity toward humanity."
From Damascus, Riyadh, Amman, Ankara and Tehran, there was only silence. No Islamic leader or senior cleric rose to condemn the murder of God's most vulnerable creatures, whom mankind is entrusted to protect.
Using the handicapped, women and children for terror is nothing new for Islamic radicals. During the January 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections, al-Qaida used a child with Down syndrome to carry out one of 38 suicide attacks at polling stations that left more than 40 people dead. In March 2005, terrorists detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle with two children in the back seat after U.S. soldiers let it through a Baghdad checkpoint. The vehicle had been allowed to pass when soldiers saw the children and became less suspicious. Once the vehicle got through the checkpoint, the adults parked it and ran, detonating the car with the children inside.
In late November 2005, a young mentally disabled woman was used by al-Qaida to detonate an explosive belt, killing herself and seven other innocent Iraqis, including a child. When coalition forces moved to disrupt al-Qaida networks operating in Diyala province in central Iraq Jan. 30, they encountered armed terrorists using women and children as human shields. According to Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, "Al-Qaida in Iraq not only targets women and children but as we are witnessing in recent months, they also prey on their innocence and have used them as suicide bombers."
This week, Jennifer Griffin, my colleague at FOX News, reported on videotapes captured in an al-Qaida lair that show young Muslim boys, ages 6-14, being trained by al-Qaida to become terrorists. In radical Islam, the slogan "women and children first" has taken on a whole new meaning.