Ten years ago this week, I, like many living in Washington at the time, was fleeing my office building. In those minutes of mayhem, I knew only what the police were screaming: Get out fast, because we're being attacked by terrorists.
In the years since 9/11, we've learned a lot about that awful day -- and about ourselves.
We've learned, for instance, about the attack's mechanics -- we know which particular terrorists orchestrated it and how many lives those mass murderers tragically destroyed. We also know about 9/11's long-term legacy -- we have healthcare data showing that it created a kind of mass post-traumatic stress disorder, and we have evidence that it generated a significant rise in anti-Muslim bigotry. And, of course, we've learned that our government can turn catastrophes like 9/11 into political weapons that successfully coerce America into supporting wars and relinquishing civil liberties.
Yet, despite all of this new knowledge, we still don't know how to explain 9/11 to the next generation. As the magazine Education Week reports, "Fewer than half the states explicitly identify the 9/11 attacks in their high school standards for social studies" -- and the relatively few schools that do discuss 9/11 often spend just a few minutes on it.
As a result, reports the magazine, "Many students today may have only vague notions of 9/11, since they were young or not even born when the attacks occurred." Worse, those "vague notions" are often defined by America's crude popular culture.
"Kids are no longer coming into the classroom as a blank slate -- they have something they've been told [about 9/11] at home, at church, on Facebook, Twitter," says the University of Texas' Middle Eastern studies expert Christopher Rose, who adds that this leaves many children wrongly believing that "[Muslims] are all crazy -- they all hate us."
Clearly, many schools are afraid that 9/11 is too touchy a topic, and that no matter how educators might address it, they would inevitably face parental ire. To know that fear is legitimate is to imagine being a teacher trying to follow the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which asks Americans to "raise complex questions" and "broaden the context for understanding the 9/11 attacks." Pursuing such a worthy goal in a classroom would mean informing kids about taboo truths.
Children would have to be told, for instance, about how the U.S. government funded the Afghan mujahedin, elements of which ultimately supported the group that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. They would have to learn about how America's meddling in the Islamic world (invasions, occupations, support for brutal dictators, etc.) has inspired what the CIA calls retributive "blowback" from terrorists. And kids would have to hear about how 9/11 was used as a justification by American politicians to invade Iraq and kill thousands of innocent Iraqis, even though that country had nothing to do with 9/11.
No doubt, reciting these facts typically gets one vilified by saber-rattling ideologues who want 9/11 to serve only as a no-questions-asked rationale for more war and bigotry. And so schools, understandably -- and unfortunately -- avoid the topic, even though children need to know these facts to properly "broaden the context."
Thus, we arrive at the implicit challenge of this week's 9/11 anniversary: to grow up. That means finally rejecting the culture of fear, demagoguery and intimidation and instead beginning a more mature dialogue about uncomfortable truths.
A decade after the attacks, such a conversation is long overdue -- but it cannot occur in our schools until it starts happening throughout all of American society.