Washington, D.C. — When she sailed from Simon’s Bay near Capetown in South Africa on February 25, 1852, under the command of Cpt. 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 Cpt. 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 were eventually rescued. 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 Qaeda’s prospects for military victory continue to sink in Iraq, the terrorists there have turned Cpt. Salmond’s time-honored tradition of chivalry and honor on its head.

Last week, Iraqi terrorists outfitted two Down syndrome Muslim women with IEDs and dispatched them into a busy al-Ghazi pet market in Baghdad’s al 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 Qaeda 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 that humankind 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 Qaeda used a child with Down syndrome to carry out one of more than 38 suicide attacks at polling stations, leaving 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 handicapped woman was used by Al Qaeda to detonate an explosive belt, killing herself and seven other innocent Iraqis including a child. When Coalition forces moved to disrupt Al Qaeda networks operating in Diyala province, central Iraq, on January 30, 2008, they encountered armed terrorists using women and children as human shields. According to Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, “Al Qaeda 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 video tapes captured in an Al Qaeda lair that show young Muslim boys ages 6 to 14 being trained by Al Qaeda to become terrorists. In radical Islam, the slogan “women and children first” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel and the founder of Freedom Alliance, a foundation that provides support for the troops and scholarships to the dependents of servicemen killed in the line of duty.

Lt Col Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. North is the founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization providing college scholarships to the children of military personnel killed in the line of duty and author of the new nationwide bestseller, "Counterfeit Lies," a novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North