With Our Eyes Open to the Truth
“In war, Truth is the first casualty”Aeschylus
About a month ago I was asked by a local reporter how I, as a high school teacher, planned to handle the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 in my classroom. I can’t remember the exact answer that I gave her, but I know it was simple. I handled the commemoration of this tragedy in exactly the same way that I handled it in the moment.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was the high school teacher at a Fort Myers private school. I had an intimate class of six students. That morning I was leading the students from the classroom when my Program Director intercepted me. She informed me that an airplane had just struck the World Trade Center in what was believed to be a terrorist act. My first thought was that it was a small plane with a misguided pilot–an accident, nothing more. The Director told me that the other teachers were planning on keeping things quiet and that some parents were on their way to pick up their kids, but I was free to handle things as I saw fit.
I did. Keeping things quiet is not my style. I simply must know what’s going on and I promote the same in my students.
My class and I returned to our tiny classroom and endeavored to get the television working. Ours was a developing school. The television was old with no cable hook-up. The students took turns serving as antennae, holding a wire hanger in the air and adjusting themselves until the picture became reasonably clear. Through the cloudy image on the screen, we saw footage of a commercial airliner, Flight 11 it turned out, colliding directly and with an eerily palpable intent, into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It was almost 9 am.
Within minutes the anchor interrupted his own reporting. Another plane had just struck the South Tower. This was no accident. This was an attack. All of us felt as if we were punched in the stomach. There were no tears, just a stunned silence. Yet the bad news kept coming like a nightmare you try to wake from but can’t. The Pentagon, a plane crash in Pennsylvania, maybe even more planes coming. We watched in real time as both towers disintegrated. The horror simply would not end.
I feared for the future of my nation as well as the future of the world. My little boy was still three months from being born. What kind of world would he inherit? The possible consequences were dizzying. It wasn’t long before I started to see the raw emotion surging from my students. Anger. Fear. Hatred. One girl intoned that there was definitely going to be a war. She put her head down on the desk. I don’t know if she was crying for I was distracted by one young man exclaiming, “Good! We need to blow the crap out of them!” Another young man suggested that we “nuke them,” “Make them pay.”
Nuke who? Make who pay? And even if we knew who perpetrated this, which at the time we did not, how exactly could we “make them pay?” My students were submersed in the emotional trauma of the event. The horror stimulated all of the visceral, subconscious instincts that drive reaction over reason, striking out over thinking things through. The reality was that we didn’t have to react. We didn’t have to strike out. We were, almost certainly, perfectly safe in our little classroom in Fort Myers.
It turned out to be a great opportunity to teach living history. “Wait a minute. Hold on.” I put my hands up and directed the focus of the class. Fear, anger and sadness were legitimate emotions under such circumstances, but we had to put these emotions in their place before they devolved into hatred and irrational, spiteful actions.
I asked, “What do we know?” The students couldn’t answer. I told them that when I’m confronted with something that I’ve never experienced before, especially something frightening or dangerous, I go over what I know. I think instead of react, and the outcomes are always much better. So I asked again, “what do we know?” As a teacher it was my responsibility to steer the class toward using their knowledge, to cultivate and nurture their thinking. My responsibilities do not change in the face of tragedy. Every moment is a learning moment in a classroom.
“We know someone attacked us.” One student stated, still visibly angry.
I nodded. Someone certainly did. But who? Was it another country? My students decided that it was not another country since other countries have missiles or bombs, otherwise they do not attack. Therefore, this was not just an attack, but an act of terrorism. I remember writing “Usama bin Ladin” in black dry erase marker on the white board. This was before his name was mentioned on the news, but I figured his name would be brought up soon. We discussed terrorism and the difficulties of combating organizations that were not necessarily affiliated with nation states. After all, our entire military apparatus was designed to fight another nation, Russia specifically, not an organization that could be in Pakistan one day and Malaysia the next.
We all knew that there was going to be a response. It was my point that this response should be thought out, should be reasonable rather than reactionary. It was one thing to be afraid and angry, but quite another to react to these emotions without thinking. In order to think effectively we needed all the facts we could get. At that moment we just didn’t have them. I advised my students to be very careful with the information we received in the foreseeable future. It was unlikely that we would have access to reliable information for at least ten years.
Here we are, ten years later, and what do we know?
On 9/11 my students learned how to deal with tragedy through reason. They (and I) learned how to accept understandably muddled and confused emotions, anger, fear and hatred, and the foundations of these emotions and then move on to reasoned analysis and decision-making based on knowledge. This learning did not end at the close of school that day. We continued our discourse as we entered into what would be America’s longest war.
I was openly and publicly against the war in Afghanistan. Most of my students supported the war. The kids learned how to discuss their opinions respectfully, even when many parents who objected to my public position could not. American values such as patriotism, freedom, privacy and speech were subject to debate and discussion. Meanwhile, some parents attempted to stifle this discourse, claiming that I was indoctrinating my students with my liberal bias. Would I have been accused of bias if I had embraced the war and spoke out in favor of it? It’s funny how it’s only “bias” when it’s an unpopular opinion.
Not only did parents have a low opinion of minority views, but they also underestimated the ability of their own children to develop their own informed opinions. The assumption was and remains that if a teacher expresses his views to the class the students will be indoctrinated with those views. Of course, this is perfectly fine if said views are of the accepted discourse. In fact, many of my students disagreed with me, and before we were through they were able to formulate reasonable arguments to defend their opinions. My students demonstrated that they were not blank slates soaking up “bad” knowledge. They were critical, and when they were included in the discussion, they were invested in the issue.
As is often the case, the drama that plays out in the classroom is a microcosm for the drama being played out in the society as a whole. After 9/11 an accepted discourse was established. We were attacked because of our wealth and our freedom. If you do not support the United States government in its “war on terror” then you are with the terrorists. Any action taken by the United States in retaliation for 9/11 was justified, including domestic spying and torture. Finally, American citizens must accept that we’ll have to give up certain rights and freedoms in order for the government to keep us safe.
Those who questioned the validity of the above claims were marginalized as pacifists, recalling Neville Chamberlain, or demonized as anti-American or pro-terrorist. There was even a list compiled of academics considered dangerous because of their radical views. Afghanistan had to be attacked, despite their being not a single Afghan on the planes that fateful day. Afghanistan was refusing to give us bin Laden, making them complicit in their terrorism. Of course, this wasn’t true, but to say so was un-American. Iraq had to be invaded because Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was intent on delivering them to al Qaeda. This wasn’t true, but to say so was un-American.
Only the accepted discourse was to be heard. Alternative (dare I say accurate) views were not tolerated. We now understand more clearly the consequences of blind following, of silent acceptance of the status quo, of reacting rather than reasoning. More often than not, the dialogue in my classroom was more open and honest than anywhere in the mainstream after 9/11. In my classroom, where I controlled the discursive space, any question could be asked, any observation could be expressed, and any course could be pursued to improve understanding of what was going on in the world. My students grew in knowledge and character while American citizens became compliant, conformist and childlike.
For ten years 9/11 has been the mantra of American quiescence. Instead of pursuing the truth, we marched in lock step with the mantra, 9/11–9/11–9/11. What is a mantra? It’s a form of indoctrination. And my students were among the few who were not indoctrinated. Since 9/11 my students of the time have thanked me for the way this horrible tragedy was handled in our classroom. Other students have informed me that their teachers told them nothing. Addressed nothing. Shared nothing. They were in the dark until they got home. Of course, that was the state for most of America–left in the dark like children too fragile to cope with something as intense as 9/11–unable to cope with our own tragedy. In that darkness we were taught to be afraid, to turn to the government for protection, but to never question what it takes to provide that protection. In the darkness we lost sight of what it means to be an American, to have rights, to stand for something greater, to be a beacon of freedom throughout the world.
My students didn’t forget.
And my students will not be allowed to forget now. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with knowledge unvarnished. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with openness. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with the truth. I will not lie to my students, and I will not allow my students to lie to themselves like so many Americans have lied to themselves in the last ten years.
If there is a lesson to be learned after ten years of the post-9/11 world, it is the value of knowledge, truth, openness. This should not come as a surprise. Every lesson of history has been the same.