Weather doesn't attract people to Washington, D.C. The summers are often grey and humid, the winters grey and cold. But at certain moments, Washington can be among the most beautiful cities in the world. September 11, 2001, was such a day.
The air was crisp, the leaves showed the first hint of the fall colors to come, the sunlight was brilliant and the sky so blue that it hurt one's eyes to stare at it. But the grey returned quickly in the form of a cloud of smoke rising from the Pentagon.
Very few people that morning knew who our enemy was. But within days, the unsettling answer began to emerge: radical jihadists who see it as their duty to bring down liberal democracy. Five years later, our efforts to combat this new foe have brought sweeping changes to our government and lives, as we've entered into a reassessment of what it means to balance personal freedoms with national security.
How have schools changed over these five years? Not all that much. Whether perusing websites offering lesson plans about September 11, or reading the state standards addressing that day's horrific events, too many educators, it appears, remain more committed to helping students understand their feelings than understanding the enemy that we as a nation face.
"Know your enemy," wrote Sun Tzu, "and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster." It's important that our children know this new enemy, because it's likely that even the youngest of them will be prosecuting this war--whether militarily, diplomatically, or economically--well into their adult years (see the White House's newly released National Strategy for Combating Terrorism).
So what should we be teaching them about 9/11 that we're not? "A clear statement of the facts of the matter," says Hillel Fradkin, former professor at the University of Chicago now at the Hudson Institute and a leading scholar of Islam.
These facts are not in dispute. The 9/11 Commission Report did a better than sound job in detailing the horror of that day's events and describing the enemy that perpetrated them. "The enemy is not just 'terrorism,'" says the executive summary. "It is the threat posed specifically by Islamist terrorism, by Bin Ladin and others who draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within a minority strain of Islam that does not distinguish politics from religion, and distorts both."
Too many adult Americans aren't getting that message, either. A recent Scripps Howard poll found that more than one-third of us believe it is "somewhat likely" that the U.S. government either assisted in the attacks or permitted them to occur. And this view is "growing" in the U.S., says Fradkin. (For more on the growing conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, see here, here, and here.)
One reason people aren't learning the truth is that some students are being taught falsehoods, taught that it is Americans, and not the jihadists, who are to blame for the attacks. Dickinson College hosts the website teaching9-11.org, which provides resources and lesson plans for handling this topic in schools and universities. Among the lesson plans it rates most highly is that of fifth-grade teacher Bob Peterson, whose plan, though aimed at getting students in touch with their emotions about terrorism, makes it clear to them that American foreign policy and not the jihadists are to blame for the events of that day.
"As a class," he writes, "we brainstormed why people might dislike the United States. Many students parroted President Bush's claim that terrorists hate us because of our freedoms. I suggested that matters were more complicated."
Complicated, sure, but the examples that Peterson gave only detailed American actions overseas that could have fired bin Laden's passion. The problem with this approach is that it implies that if only America hadn't done this or that, then the attacks wouldn't have occurred. What's missed in such lessons, and what the 9/11 Commission Report captures so well, is that the build-up to September 11 was fueled first and foremost by radicals who see the West as a threat to the Muslim community, or umma, and that only by bringing down that threat can the expansion of Islam go forward.
This is but one example of many (see here and here ) in which teachers seem more concerned about shielding students from reality than educating them about the horrors of that day. We don't sugar-coat the trauma people experienced after Pearl Harbor, or the horrors of slavery (as well we shouldn't), so why the need to protect them from this? Besides, the proliferation of made-for-TV movies, big-screen features, and countless news stories on 9/11 all but guarantee most students have seen those jets crashing into the twin towers. There's no shielding them at this point--they need context.
Our state standards for both world and U.S. history offer no assurance that schools can provide this. State world history standards too often fail to provide adequate political, geographic, or religious histories of the modern Middle East and Islam, leaving them incapable of discerning the differences between Shi'a and Sunni, caliphates and imams, and traditionalists and radicals.
The attacks were a "shock, not a surprise," says the 9/11 Commission Report. Al-Qaeda spent more than two decades preparing for that day, and had lots of practice along the way (the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 blasts at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, to name but a few). And in each case, jihad (or holy struggle) was the ideological idea that bin Laden employed to fuel the attackers.
Over the past five years, it's become popular to reinterpret jihad as something other than a military activity. Instead, many organizations that influence textbook writers, policy makers, and teachers, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, stress that bin Laden's reading of jihad is grossly distorted, and not shared by the vast majority of Muslims, who instead see jihad as a purely spiritual battle to remove obstacles between oneself and God.
The problem with this view, explains Fradkin, is that while "jihad" can be translated both as war and as spiritual training, "by far the most common definition is the one used for warfare." Moreover, while most Muslims wouldn't join al-Qaeda, many of them would support the goals of jihad as outlined by bin Laden. "It's a kind of continuum or spectrum around which people can slide," Fradkin says. "Osama himself understood this." His goal was not to beat the West on his own, but to incite a surge in the Muslim world for the global jihad.
By passing off bin Laden as an extremist dismissed by the Muslim world, we delude ourselves and mislead our pupils by minimizing the extent to which jihadist ideology will continue to rear its head in the future.
So it's disappointing that at least two high school textbooks avoid the issue of jihad altogether. Both Glencoe's The American Vision: Modern Times, and World History: Modern Times, cover the events of 9/11 without ever mentioning the term. And these books aren't alone in their failure to address the history of Muslim of terrorism, as even the left-leaning magazine The Nation grudgingly concedes.
The fall-out and aftermath from that horrible day five years ago--the war in Iraq, rising anti-American sentiments worldwide, changing policies on protecting American citizens that alter pre-9/11 privacy protection--will take some time to sort out. There's a lot of grey surrounding these issues, and scholars, teachers, and students should debate them.
But about the attacks on the Pentagon, Twin Towers, and, had the plane not crashed in Pennsylvania, presumably the White House or Capitol, we should all be as clear as the skies over Washington and New York five years ago. Islamic terrorists launched the attacks. And their goal is to use jihad to destroy liberal democracy, which they see as a direct threat to Islam.
There is no excuse for teaching anything less.