05/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stopping Future Terrorist Attacks

In February, Najibullah Zazi, a 25-year-old immigrant to the United States from Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to plotting a terrorist attack on the New York City subway system. Zazi, who was raised in Pakistan, attended Flushing High School in Queens as a teenager. He told the judge that he planned the attack in response to the United States invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, particularly attacks on civilians, and that he had agreed to a guilty plea to protect family members, including his mother, from being charged as accessories. He faces life imprisonment.

Later in the month, two of his friends from Flushing High School, Adis Medunjanin, who was born in Bosnia, and Zarein Ahmedzay, who like Zazi is from Afghanistan, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, and providing material support for a terrorist organization.

New Yorkers, and I include myself, have been especially fearful of potential terrorist plots since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. There has been tremendous local pressure on the federal government not to hold high-profile trials of suspected terrorists in the city. Our fears that New York will be targeted again are not unfounded.

But fear should not prevent us from trying to understand what is taking place in the world and why young men and women such as Najibullah Zazi and his friends turn against the United States.

I have been a teacher for almost forty years and I do not believe the teenagers and young adults I work with are very different from the way my friends and I were when we were their ages. They are upset by what they see as injustice and want to see it rectified. Today, on a daily basis I read in the newspapers about Islamic young men and women who believe their people are under attack by a powerful enemy that disrespects their beliefs and traditions, occupies theirs lands, and is willing to use its military might to force its way of life on them. Their sense of identity requires that they rally in support of their people. They want to be freedom fighters.

They are not monsters, they are not insane, nor are they are fanatics. To dismiss them in this way is to misunderstand their motives and leaves us incapable of dealing with them. They see themselves as fighting for a just cause. Whether they individually live or die is inconsequential. People they identify with as brothers and sisters are already dying because of their enemy's actions. They want to participate; they want to do something that is historically worthwhile.

I do not believe in killing civilians. Whether it is done by suicide bombers or by military drones is not an act of heroism nor is it in any way justified. I recognize, and support the need of the United States to take precautions that protect its civilians and military personnel from attack.

But dismissing individuals and movements as terrorist for defying U.S. policies and responding in the only ways they have available to them is counterproductive. It prevents any resolution of the underlying conflict and it ensures new generations of disaffected young people will follow in their path.

As a secondary school teacher I learned that the best, perhaps only way to control a classroom of rambunctious teenagers is through organization and relationship. When classes and lessons are organized and students feel related to the teacher, ninety percent of the problems do not happen. All disruptive behavior does not end; there are always students who are having a bad day or a bad life for one reason or another.

Based on this experience as a teacher, I believe that when Islamic youth like Zazi, Medunjanin, and Ahmedzay believe there is hope for the future, that they have dignity and that their religion is respected, that their lives will change for the better, and that there will be justice in the Middle East, the threat of attack will lessen significantly, although it will probably never end completely. Dismissing these young people as terrorists will just convince them that their view of the world is accurate and that they need to be martyrs.