With thousands of speculations regarding what really happened on September 11, 2001, one American high-school history teacher gives us his unique perspective on the politics and reality of the most deadly terrorist act in US history. Rage Against the Machine grinds from computer speakers as he settles down with a vegetarian ciabatta sandwich, to discuss how he frames the topic with his 15 year old students.
I was the same age as my students when September 11 happened. The chain reaction of events to follow profoundly changed the way my generation understands how the world functions. Corporate media coverage was so clearly full of omissions and obfuscations; it quickly became clear they could not be trusted. The government clumsily, greedily, rushed the country into major international conflicts, blatantly for the profit of their personal business ventures. The world, in a moment of inexplicable, humbling, empathy, lit candles and prayed for the souls of those innocents who paid for our sins in blood and smoldering steel. Ordinary Americans en masse freaked the fuck out, regurgitating the same narcissist nationalism they were conditioned in history class to perpetuate.
3,000 Americans died on September 11. Since then the US government has plunged over 3 trillion dollars into the war industry, 1.2 trillion of which is owed directly to China. Nearly 5,000 American service members have been killed. 100,000 American service members are permanently physically, and psychologically, unwhole. 400,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. 2.3 million are now refugees. Avoiding a politically caustic draft, a massive private army infrastructure was developed to privatize formerly military functions. As the war winds down, our private armies are earning massive contracts as mercenary attack-dogs of transnational corporations like Chevron. By any, even cursory, evaluation of the impact of Septemeber 11 on America and the world, we have a perennially deepening tragedy.
Germany has been the root of a number of grand tragedies. Yet when they teach students about the Holocaust, they do not obfuscate or obscure the facts to their students. In fact, students in Germany are taught explicitly the brutal reality of their ancestor’s actions. Every German student is provided with the truth. The result is a society that has very quickly come to terms with their history and are openly hostile to racism, fear mongering, war, and violence.
Learning about history is not about memorizing dates and names and places. It’s about learning from the past to envision and create a better future. Students must learn that people jumped from those burning buildings because the US has stoked fires of terrible, wrathful, despair in the hearts of people thousands of miles away, living under cruel US-sponsored despotisms. Some have returned to the location their child lost half their limbs, and found fragments of land mines with MADE IN USA printed proudly. Hospitals have crumbled as US bombers streaked away. Palestinians are assaulted with billions of dollars worth of US-donated weapons. The real question wasn’t, “Why do they hate us?” but rather, “How on earth can they pray for us?”
Rage Against the Machine produced a song called ‘Know Your Enemy’ that I listened to frequently while studying to become a teacher: “Yes I know my enemies/They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me/Yeah compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite.” I knew that if I taught my students the corporate mandates and government omissions of the dominant 9/11 narrative on this anniversary, I would be implicitly teaching them that we must conform to brutality and assimilate into submission. That hypocrisy in service of the elite is a compromise. I would be the teacher that taught them to fight themselves. Instead, we carefully examine what we do know, ask questions about what we don’t, and demand truth. 9/11 is not about venerating the innocent, but rather learning from the past to envision and create a better future.