Introduction to Teaching and Understanding Sept 11

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Introduction to Teaching and Understanding Sept 11

Mark S. Hamm and Paul S. Leighton

The resources described in this introduction are available at
Some events are so overwhelmingly devastating that they leave us speechless. That is what happened to many Americans on September 11th, 2001. Even those who are normally eloquent found themselves confronting a reticence in speaking of the suicide hijackings by Islamic terrorists. This historic crime not only caught the American public by surprise, but it also left us profoundly bewildered about the ideas and beliefs that could possibly drive nineteen Muslim extremists to sacrifice their own lives for the chance to massacre ordinary Americans.

So, in the aftermath of September 11th the country focused on three essential questions: “What is Islam?”, “Why Do They Hate Us?” and–perhaps most urgently-- “How Were the Terrorists So Easily Able To Penetrate National Security and Kill Thousands of Innocent Citizens?” Adding to the shock of these violent deaths was the alarming fact that people who so passionately want us dead–people who are eminently disposed and organized to do just that– belong to groups that most Americans had never heard of.

This is hardly surprising. Americans are generally uniformed about the world beyond their borders. But September 11th changed that. The fanaticism behind the attacks has affected nearly every aspect of public life in the United States: from immigration, border patrol, and airline safety; to drug enforcement, public health and “Homeland Security.” Quite naturally, this change has also resonated in the hallways of academe.

The educational challenges posed by 9-11 are imposing, to be sure. For educators must now help students make sense of the senseless. They must help students find ways to make the story of September 11th part of their own internal dialogue. More than anything else, this means offering students resources for exploring a wide range of issues that are suddenly (and rightfully) so important. For them, blissful ignorance is no longer an option.

Yet there is a more philosophical reason for teaching the story of September 11th. At bottom, the terrorist attacks were caused by two intersecting forces. On one hand, there was the murderous ideology and organizational discipline of the extremists who perpetrated the attack. On the other was the weakness of the FBI and the agency’s chronic inability to synthesize intelligence reports, draw conclusions, and work with other agencies responsible for national security. These failings were lodged in a broader America innocence and misreading about the movement that can spawn such an act of terror. How can we avoid making the same mistake again? “Human history,” observed H.G. Wells, “becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” This book is dedicated to education, and to the hope that its positive effects will outrun another human catastrophe like the one on September 11th.

Thinking in a New Way

While the al Qaeda terrorist group behind the attacks has been disrupted, its wealthy and charismatic leader Osama bin Laden may still be alive and, more importantly, the factors making him a powerful force in the Muslim world are still in place: other groups also believe that a holy war against the United States is a necessity, share anti-American sentiment for secular (perhaps nationalist) interests, or are deeply conflicted about the McDonaldized Western lifestyle that is encroaching upon them. The perpetrators of the 2001 anthrax attacks are also still at large, along with an unknown quantity of deadly material. Anthrax, biological agents and mixtures of radioactive material with conventional explosives–a radiological or “dirty bomb”–focus attention on the formidable problem of asymmetric warfare, or strategies whereby a small number of determined people can take stands against a superpower. Indeed, when the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of its “Doomsday Clock” from nine to seven minutes before midnight, one reason was “terrorist efforts to acquire and use nuclear and biological weapons.” The anthrax attacks, said the Board, “breached previous boundaries for terrorist acts and should have been a global wake-up call. Moving the clock’s hands at this time reflects our growing concern that the international community has hit the ‘snooze’ button rather than respond to the alarm.” Importantly, the Board went on to “fully support” this warning signed by 110 Nobel laureates: “The only hope for the future lies in cooperative international action, legitimized by democracy...To survive in the world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way.”1

Higher education can help to make sense of these threats by contributing to intelligent discussions about the what to do next. That is, by helping us to think in new ways. Yet professors also have a great deal to learn about the terrorist threat. Thinking in new ways begins with moving beyond the idea that September 11 was simply the work of “evildoers.” There is no precedent for such an academic agenda. In his analysis of the 9-11 attacks, the distinguished terrorism scholar Walter Laqueur notes that, “criminologists have been reluctant to discuss evil, for even if it is real it is a theological concept rather than a social science one.”th Politically, such a simplistic explanation is also dangerously dismissive. To spilt the world into forces of “good and evil” suggests that those who oppose the United States and its interests are not worth understanding; that we need not care how others in the world see us because we have the might and the right to annihilate them.

It is our duty as educators, therefore, to come to a fuller understanding of the forces and sentiments that produce terrorism and terrorists. New ways of thinking will require rigorous reflection on the academy’s relevance to the terrorism threat not just within the U.S., but on matters of violence in an increasingly small and interconnected global village. At a minimum, this reflection must turn on issues of economic globalization and global justice, future dangers to civilization, and mechanisms for conflict resolution. The goal must be to foster cooperative study of a “problem area” that cuts across a range of disciplines–from anthropology, sociology, and criminology and to psychology, political science, and the humanities. It is only through this cooperation that educators will be able to provide students with the knowledge that they will need to live in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.
About This Project

This book is a modest start on the task of documenting a pedagogy about the causes and consequences of September 11. As we began this project, much to our surprise we discovered that that conversation had already begun in earnest. We found that university faculty from all walks of academic life had responded to the catastrophe by designing and teaching numerous courses on 9-11. The syllabi from some two dozen courses–along with extensive bibliographies, teaching strategies, suggested films, and related resources--are presented in the pages to follow. Some of the selected syllabi are ambitious and detailed; others are only a page or two long, yet no less important than the longer ones. A number of the syllabi are being used in traditional courses, while others support web-enhanced education. (Unlike online or “distance education” classes, web-enhanced courses are taught the traditional way–through lectures, discussions, and learning activities–yet the Internet is used as a multimedia course pack wherein addresses of web resources are included in both the paper syllabus and a class web page.)

We also found an amazing number of thorough Internet websites about all facets of the 9-11 attacks--websites created by talented and thoughtful people who wanted to help make sense of the catastrophe for themselves and others. Therefore, in addition to this book, we have created a companion website to further aid the process of thoughtful inquiry by tapping into the numerous existing Internet resources in a way that parallels the organization of Teaching About September 11th. In some ways, the website is a superior method for teaching about the attacks. Unlike a book, the website can identify helpful resources without royalty payments and it can be updated as developments unfold. In teaching about September 11thth, we heartily agree with Janet Murray who writes in her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: “We need every available form of expression and all the new ones we can muster to help us understand who we are and what we are doing here.”2

The companion website for this book is located at Resources for a Just Peace, available through This website started as the class project for a Violence & Society seminar that was charged with finding non-repressive responses to violence. Subsequent classes have helped to provide additional resources, so the website now includes pages on school violence, hate crimes, domestic terrorism, rape and restorative justice. The September 11 section of StopViolence makes additional material available and free of charge, even to those who do not have a copy of this book. (Some of the material in the book may not be available on the website, and other material is better read here on paper than on the computer screen.)

This book and the companion website together provide numerous options for incrementally changing existing courses, giving them a thorough overhaul, or implementing larger changes in various academic programs. The following represents the foundation resources pages, which will be expanded over time to include more information on civil rights during a time of crisis and domestic preparedness issues.

Terrorism and Social Change–places September 11thth in historical, political, and cultural frames of reference across several disciplines by engaging the topics of fear, danger, trauma, memory, foreign policy, and terrorism. The website contains links to current news, news archives, and photo galleries; it also contains links to more information about Osama bin Laden, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-American sentiment.

Middle East, Afghanistan and Islam–introduces the diverse people of Central Asia and the Middle East, including the status of women. Links from the website go to regional newspapers that have English language versions and strategic studies institutes, gender issues, and guides to understanding Islam.

International Law–examines how to develop appropriate laws in a global village, with an emphasis on mechanisms for responding to terrorism and mass violence (war crime trials, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, etc.). The website contains links to information on genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Learning Activities, Reading Lists & Other Resources–explores additional perspectives, including feminism, pedagogy, and the causes of terrorism. Weblinks provide information on female suicide bombers, media criticism, intelligence failures, pedagogy for September 11th, and political cartoons that offer various domestic and international perspectives.
Conclusions: “What Were They Thinking?”

It is our hope that the example syllabi presented here, along with the teaching resources and the companion website, will not only foster a greater understanding about the catastrophe of September 11th, but also provide tools for thinking about a transformed world. And that goal is liable to the vicissitudes of our times.

The future will offer many chances to remember and commemorate the events of 9-11, and while they will provide important occasions for national solidarity, it is important that patriotism not be so strong as to prevent critical reflection and discussion. Bob Dylan once sang that “Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.” Blind conformity to any doctrine is the death knell of freedom and democracy; it allows scoundrels to make moral imbeciles out of us all. Dissent and critical reflection–both in and outside the classroom–is what makes democracy work. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once commented in a case that “those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards” and “they did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.” His opinion outlines a theory of the republic and highlights the values that define what the United States stands for at its best:

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties...They valued liberty both as an ends and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government...They knew that is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breads repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.3

The primary goal of the American university is to educate students so that they may become productive citizens of our democratic society. Yet this a society that exists within a shrinking global village that is more a “stepchild of technology” than a flowering community. It is now evident that we have overlooked some unpleasant aspects about this technological offspring. Reflecting on the often-ignored side of globalization, poet Robert Johnson writes that “we forgot about village idiots and about chronic malcontents...Worse, we forgot about victims of injustice, real and imagined, whose resentments simmer and boil just below the surface of village life.”4 Students must be prepared for the extreme dangers posed by these village idiots, malcontents, and victims of social injustice–both real and imagined. And lest anyone think that this grim reality is better left ignored in the classroom, they would do well to ponder David Friedrichs’ essay in Chapter 1. Friedrichs discusses what German criminologists were researching and teaching while the Nazis systematically exterminated millions of Jews, and he asks: “What were they thinking?”

The considerable differences between the German criminologists and current scholars of crime, deviance, and terrorism should not obscure the common applicability, and inevitability, of the historically enduring question: “What were they thinking?”

1 “From the Board of Directors: It’s Seven Minutes to Midnight.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 February 2002, available at the link in the Sept. 11 section of, which also contains a portion of this introduction with working links to articles supporting the main contentions of this introduction.

th Walter Laqueur (2001) “Left, Right, and Beyond: The Changing Face of Terror.” In James F. Hoge, Jr. and Gideon Rose (Eds.), How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War. New York: Public Affairs, p. 80.

2 Janet Murray (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 274.

3 Whitney v. People of State of California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

4 Robert Johnson, “Village Life.” Poem available in Sept. 11 section of

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