Sunday, September 11, 2011 will be the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The politicization of the events and the ways they should be remembered has already begun with efforts to block the construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. Its founders envision the center, which will include an area for prayer, as an opportunity to promote brotherhood, diversity, and interdenominational cooperation. Critics of the cultural center argue it is an insult to the memories of people who died in the attack and their families.
Support for the culture center, even within the Islamic community, has been tepid. It is typified by President Obama and others who defend religious freedom as a fundamental principle, but question the judgment of building it at that location. The Republican Party, Tea Party activists, and the Fox Views (not news) network are trying to make opposition to the center a litmus test for both patriotism and common sense. It is a bludgeon in their campaign to overturn Democratic Party majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been one of its few vocal supporters.
For the 10th anniversary, major commemoration ceremonies will probably be planned for sites in New York City and Washington DC, and in Pennsylvania where the third hijacked aircraft was forced down by passengers. In the days that precede and follow the tenth anniversary there will also be activities in schools and other public places. Teachers will be asked to involve their classes in observations and discussions.
An important, and perhaps contentious issue will be whether teachers are involved in the planning of the school commemorations or will simply be directed to attend with students and implement lessons generated from above. Teachers, who have daily contact with young people and who are most familiar with both their levels of understandings and their feelings are best positioned to help students raise questions and express their views.
Social studies teachers have an especially crucial role to play because of their skill in addressing sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom, and because for most students, the events of September 11, 2001 are part of learned history rather than lived experience. In 2007, I conducted a workshop on the significance of 9/11 for ninth graders who were nine years old at the time of the attacks. None of them remembered the events based on their own memories. In 2011, other than children who suffered personal loss at the time, there will probably be no students left in public school with personal recollections.
While September 11, 2011 will most likely be reserved for quiet contemplation and other solemn ceremonies, the tenth anniversary should be used to engage students in discussions of a number of vital questions prior to and after the actual date. They include: What should happen at the commemoration? Who should be included in the preparations? How should we respond to the families? Who legitimately represents them? Should we assume they speak with one voice when some of the families have protested against U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan under the slogan "not in our name"? Should events be organized for them specifically or for the nation? Can we respect their desires, without granting them a veto over arrangements? Is it time for the nation and the families to move on so that wounds are allowed to heal?
I also think there should be serious discussion of the kind of country the United States has become since September 11, 2001. Are Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the Patriot Act consistent with the American value on justice? Does the treatment of immigrants and Muslims undermine long cherished American beliefs? Why is there opposition to an Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center? Has concern for national security canceled out respect for diversity, the ideals of universal brotherhood, and tolerance of difference?
There also needs to be an evaluation of U.S. foreign and military policy. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or Afghanistan and it is highly unlikely that military occupation will ever lead to democratic government. The U.S. has failed to provide basic stability and infrastructure in Iraq, leading Iraqi civilians to derisively demand to know "Maki Kahraba," "Where is the electricity?" The war on terrorism, a war without end, is bankrupting the United States, undermining its international stature, and producing more terrorists than it is eliminating. The U.S. and the international community must decide what actually constitutes terrorism and stop acting reflexively.
I am especially concerned, and I think everyone should be concerned, about the silencing that will probably follow the Republican Party, Fox Views (not news), Tea Party assault. People fear being targeted because of their beliefs. What is happening now is reminiscent of the silencing of both political opposition and informed discussion that took place in the 1950s because of McCarthyism and red-baiting and effort to equate belief in human decency with treason.
No one is immune. In July I received an email asking me to support a new flotilla being organized to send humanitarian supplies to Gaza in violation of an Israeli blockade. My first reaction was unease. I liked the idea of the flotilla as a non-violent form of civil disobedience but I was hesitant to get my name on a list or make a donation that would put my family or myself under suspicion. My second reaction was determination not to be intimidated. I signed the call at their website and I made a fifty dollar tax-deductible contribution.
I was on Fox Views (not news) in October 2008 responding to Bill O'Reilly and the wild bunch when they smeared Barack Obama. I went on their shows because my students said they were bullies and someone had to stand up to them.
The Foxies are bullying people again using the cultural center and self-righteous pandering to public concern for the 9/11 families. So Bill et al at Fox Views (not news), I challenge you to bring me on again. I promise not to treat you too roughly this time.