September 4, 2002

9/11 Lesson Plan


The Times just ran an article about the trouble teachers were having in deciding what to tell students on Sept. 11. That's a serious question. This is a moment for moral clarity, and here are the three lessons I would teach:

Lesson #1: Who are they? This lesson would emphasize that while most people in the world are good and decent, there are evil people out there who are not poor, not abused but envious. These extremists have been raised in societies that have failed to prepare them for modernity, and the most evil among them chose on Sept. 11 to lash out at the symbol of modernity America. As the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem put it in Time magazine, "Beneath their claims . . . these extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarfs, which is why they search for towers and all those who tower mightily." Their grievance is rooted in psychology, not politics; their goal is to destroy America, not reform it; they can only be defeated, not negotiated with.

Assigned reading: Larry Miller's Jan. 14, 2002, essay in The Weekly Standard:

Lesson #2: Who are we? We Americans are not better than any other people, but the Western democratic system we live by is the best system on earth. Unfortunately, in the Arab-Muslim world, there is no democracy, too few women's rights and too little religious tolerance. It is the values and traditions of freedom embraced by Western civilization, and the absence of those values and traditions in the Arab-Muslim world, that explain the main differences between us.

Assigned reading: "An Autumn of War," by the military historian Victor Davis Hanson:

Lesson #3: Why do so many foreigners reject the evil perpetrators of 9/11 but still dislike America? It's because, while we have the best system of governance, we are not always at our best in how we act toward the world. Because we want to drive big cars, we support repressive Arab dictators so they will sell us cheap oil. Because our presidents want to get votes, they readily tell the Palestinians how foolishly they are behaving, but they hesitate to tell Israelis how destructive their West Bank settlements are for the future of the Jewish state. Because we want to consume as much energy as we please, we tell the world's people they have to be with us in the war on terrorism but we don't have to be with them in the struggle against global warming and for a greener planet.

The point, class, is that while evil people hate us for who we are, many good people dislike us for what we do. And if we want to win their respect we need to be the best, most consistent and most principled global citizens we can be.

Assigned readings: The U.S. Constitution, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech and the Declaration of Independence.

© New York Times 2002


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