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9-11: What Should We Tell Our Children?

Around noon on September 11, 2001, my son Gabriel, away at college, called our house just outside of Washington and left this message on the answering machine: "Mom, Dad, Hannah, Nate: Is anybody there!? Is everyone OK? Dad, tell me, please: What the hell is going on?!" When I heard the message a few hours later, it made a lasting impression. My handsome, brash and outwardly confident 19-year old's voice was quavering, just shy of crying. I had never heard this voice before, but I knew what it meant, for I remembered my plaint to my father on November 22, 1963. I listened that evening, too, to the voices of my 16-year old daughter and 13-year old son -- and, of course, the listening has been ongoing. It is from this personal engagement that I approach the question of what our children should learn about 9/11.

Before suggesting any answers, however, we should understand properly the question. What our children -- in America, in a democracy -- should learn about 9/11 of course includes elements of the political and the civic, lessons that depend on facts and can be put into words. But what we experienced late last summer shows that our identities as citizens can never be entirely separated from our existence as human beings, and that as we approach extreme, defining events the two tend to merge. Wars throughout history have not just reshaped maps, they have transformed souls. There is, then, as my own children's voices show me, knowledge of a more general sort to be learned not about, but from, 9/11 as well. This is a domain in which facts are elusive and words do not suffice. Consider these four suggestions for teachers, then, with this in mind.

1. OUR CHILDREN SHOULD KNOW THE FACTS. Emotionally evocative events inevitably produce energetic expression. But such expression in the absence of basic information is, aside from the catharsis it may provide, not otherwise helpful or edifying. There is no substitute for knowing the basic story lines of 9/11. First, our children must know what literally happened in New York and at the Pentagon. Second, they must know the line of information leading backwards -- to the plotters, their methods and organizations, their cultural and political environments. Third, they must know the line of information leading forward--to the military campaign in Afghanistan, the effort to roll up "sleeper" cells in the U.S. and abroad through police and intelligence cooperation, and the main outlines of new approaches to homeland security and U.S. diplomacy as they have evolved over the past year. In the process, teachers have an unusual opportunity to convey to students that the world-at-large really does matter to them, that regular newspaper reading is a good personal and civic habit, and that it helps to know what you're talking about before opening your mouth to speak.

2. OUR CHILDREN SHOULD NOT ABJURE JUDGMENT. All historical interpretation, even of recent history, involves making moral judgments. Once the facts are in hand, it is possible for children to make moral judgments appropriate to their level of intellectual development. We are proud to teach our children the discipline involved in making analytical judgments, but some Americans have lately become reluctant even to acknowledge the existence of a similar ethical discipline. Some people believe that judging others is virtually always wrong, that no agreed standard of morality can exist outside a situational (i.e., temporary and local) consensus, and that believing in the superior virtue of one's own social and politic values is somehow vulgar. Such people are usually quicker to blame American behavior for what happened on September 11 than the actual perpetrators of some 3,000 murders. People may believe what they like, of course; but such a view would have struck the American Founders as incomprehensible, it strikes most Americans as perverse, and it does not jibe with what the best analysts (like Robert Coles) of a child's inner life tell us -- that children as young as five or six years old have an understanding of basic fairness, of right and wrong, that we are moral beings by nature. If sophisticated adults don't squelch that understanding, our children might actually grow into responsible adults in a democratic civilization.

A pertinent example: Those who shun moral judgment often say that "terrorist" is a meaningless word because "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." But a terrorist can be defined with reasonable precision, as a non-state actor (i.e., an actor unaccountable, democratically or otherwise, to a larger community) who deliberately kills innocent civilians to advance a cause. Whatever the cause and however one feels about it, there is still nothing amiss with our children reaching the moral judgment that such behavior is always wrong.

3. OUR CHILDREN SHOULD LEARN TO MAKE DISTINCTIONS. Facts in hand and judgments permitted (if not encouraged), we must teach our children not to conflate people, behaviors and ideas that ought to stay separate. Really knowing the facts helps a lot, but it is not enough; patience and diligence in exercising judgment are also required. Historical realities have set Muslim Arab societies much at odds with the West and the United States, and at some level this is what produced 9/11. Some of our differences are cultural, theological or philosophical in nature. Some arise from conflicting interests, and others have to do with specific policies or actions that various governments have taken. It is not easy in practice to keep all these strands apart; political reality, like what happens when you wash your hair, tends to a natural tangle. But we have to try to make sensible distinctions. For starters, there are no Middle Easterners for any practical purpose: Iranians are not Arabs, Arabs are not Turks, Turks are not Pashtuns. Islam -- a proper noun -- is not an "enemy" of the West (another proper noun), because neither Islam nor the West describes a decision-making unit, and neither is remotely monolithic. Not all Saudis want to emulate Osama bin Laden; not all acts of violence are terrorism; the status of women is not the same in all Muslim societies; and so on, and on, and on.

Of course we must generalize when we speak, or we would never get to a second paragraph in anything we wish to speak about. But children should learn to treat all generalizations with care and to cherish distinctions properly made. It is easier and so much quicker to generalize than to specify, to conflate than to distinguish; but our children should learn that the "easy way out" is the "hardest way in" to genuine achievement or wisdom -- about 9/11, or anything else.

4. OUR CHILDREN MUST LEARN TO LIVE WITH UNCERTAINTY. Facts, judgments, distinctions -- these are all important; but even our best efforts with them will not eliminate our fears, create perfect security, or enable us to predict the future. As an idea and as a society, America will continue to have enemies no matter what we do; these enemies will sometimes try to harm us and may sometimes succeed in doing so. We would like not to have to think about such frightening things; indeed, we want to believe that some day we will put an end to violence and enmity between peoples altogether. It is good to hope for and work toward such ends, but at the same time we must be realistic about what the world will abide. Will there be another terrible attack on America? Where? When? Will we ever find and punish the people who put anthrax in the mail, so that we'll be sure they won't be able to do it again? We really don't know, and we do our children no service by telling them otherwise. Our uncertainties, however, must not demobilize us. There is a huge difference between living in fear and living with fear. If we succumb to the former, then the terrorists win, because that is the strategy of terrorism: to cause its target to be untrue to its own values and to distort its normal way of life. That is why if we do not learn to cope with uncertainty -- each one of us, for, after all, we add up one by one to America -- we will do our enemies' work for them. Maybe children should learn to sing "Whistle a Happy Tune" from The King and I; it may be out of fashion in some circles, but there is nothing wrong with learning to be brave.

Make them learn the facts, allow them to exercise their right to be moral beings, teach them patience and diligence in judgment, and encourage them to be realistic and brave -- this should suffice for lesson one in teaching our children about 9/11. If teachers convey lesson one well, then, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, lesson two can be anything they want it to be.

This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.