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Teaching the “War on Terror”: Lessons for Contemporary Politics

Photograph Source: US Army/Navy – Public Domain

As we move past the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it helps to be aware of the changes in U.S. political culture that have transformed this nation over the last two decades. I teach a history class at Lehigh University, “The War on Terrorism in Politics, Media, and Memory,” which is billed as examining the “meaning” of this war, via an exploration of “personal experiences and critical perspectives on the war,” as depicted in official rhetoric, the news media, and popular film.

As a professor who turns 40 within the year, and who was 21 at the time of the September 11 attacks, I didn’t fully realize until I began teaching this class the gulf that exists in the public mind on the “War on Terror.” I’ve spent my entire undergraduate and graduate experiences, and my professorial career studying U.S. political rhetoric, the media, and public opinion in the post 9/11 era. I lived through every moment of this period and examined major historical events through the lens of a social scientist, intent on understanding why U.S. foreign policy took the form it did. But for 18 to 22 year-olds taking a history class on 9/11, this is all ancient history. Undergraduate students in 2019 were infants or young children in 2001, so they have no firsthand, let alone adult experience, in what the U.S. political culture was like following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Towers. Comparing my own experiences to those of young Americans is a valuable learning experience, considering the vastly different ways in which the young engage with the era, compared to the experiences of young adults of the previous generation. Following this point, this essay discusses some of the main lessons I have gathered from teaching the history of the “War on Terror.”

A benefit of teaching 20 year-olds about post 9/11 political history is that they aren’t burdened by the same toxic discourse that defined the United States immediately following these terror attacks. President Bush famously declared after 9/11 that Americans and citizens of the world were either “with us or against us” in a war with no end in sight, which the president promised would not be complete until terrorism was wiped from the face of the globe. In this environment, Americans felt pressured and intimidated to withhold dissent, for fear of being called “unpatriotic,” “un-American,” or a “terrorist sympathizer.” But this belligerent ultra-nationalism has since subsided, alongside rising public distrust of U.S. political leaders and in the face of multiple unpopular wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Because of their physical removal from the post-9/11 years, young Americans were spared from dealing with the indoctrination that plagued U.S. political discourse at the onset of the “War on Terror.” This translates into a profound openness to substantive, foundational challenges to the very legitimacy of this war. My students hold a genuine intellectual curiosity about the discourse and values that defined the days and years immediately following 9/11, but they look at that period with removed, detached eyes, and are willing to question U.S. foreign policy motives. This includes an openness to the concept of “blowback,” or the radical critique of the U.S. as having actively stoked animosity throughout the Muslim world via repressive and imperialistic foreign policies. This discussion was difficult to have, if not impossible, in the uber-nationalistic climate of fear that dominated the U.S. post-9/11.

My students recognize the dangers inherent in stifling debate in a nation that envisions itself as a protector of democratic values. The irony of the Bush administration demanding unquestioning obedience following 9/11, in the name of defending American freedom and democracy, is not lost on my students. Many openly recognize the danger of the proto-fascistic value system that demands unqualified, blind support for political leaders and their war agenda, without any consideration of the dangers involved in an infinite war conducted in country after country, with little concern for the humanitarian consequences.

One benefit of the intellectual curiosity of young Americans today is it translates into a willingness to seriously consider the motives of the 9/11 attackers. This curiosity barely existed in the days and years after September 11. Sure, Americans purchased books about the Middle East and Islam in rising numbers post-9/11. But I can’t remember a single person that I spoke to in my years of studying U.S. foreign policy who bothered to actually read an interview with Osama Bin Laden. Had they done so, they would have discovered that his and his comrades’ ideology, while fanatical and extreme, was also driven by serious grievances against the United States that are shared by majorities in Muslim countries. These include: anger at U.S. military support for Israel and its illegal occupation of Palestine; bitterness over U.S. military bases throughout the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia; opposition to U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in the region; and disgust with the U.S. in the wake of the 1991 Iraq war and subsequent sanctions, which caused the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children.

War fatigue became a staple of American politics in the late 2000s and 2010s, as most Americans came to see the Iraq war as immoral and not worthy of the cost in finances, lives, and blood, and considering the lies for war regarding Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and fictitious ties to Al Qaeda terrorism. Many young Americans seem to share this war fatigue today, even if they weren’t closely following American politics during the 2000s. Having been exposed to the words of Osama Bin Laden, my students also understand just how dangerous the onset of the “War on Terror” was, in a conflict which Bin Laden coldly and diabolically sought to draw the U.S. into destructive wars in the Middle East, in order to achieve a “balance of terror” on both sides, defined by vicious acts of destruction against civilian populations by both the U.S. military and Islamic fundamentalists.

Wars inevitably terrorize large numbers of people, who are inevitably caught up in conflicts between warring parties. Bin Laden was counting on this, and his support for the 9/11 hijackers was motivated by the hope that a heavy-handed U.S. military response would further radicalize the Middle East, expanding the number of fundamentalists willing to kill themselves and others in a “holy war” against the United States and allied governments and peoples. In the decade following the September 11 attacks, the effectiveness of this “eye for an eye” strategy was realized, as seen in the rise of ISIS and its takeover of large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s power has been reduced in recent years, although it has recently seen a resurgence, and remains set on re-establishing a caliphate under the rule of fundamentalists committed to a “Jihad” of the sword against critics and non-believers.

Encouragingly, many of my students recognize the dangers of Bin Laden’s strategy of escalation with the United States. They realize there’s no positive endgame in such a war, a point verified by the fact that we are now in year 18 of the war in Afghanistan, with no foreseeable end in sight. But they also recognize the danger inherent in Americans’ pull-back from the world in recent years, as reflected in the growing nativism of American political culture, and declining public attention to world affairs. Without a critical awareness of the history of the “War on Terror,” there is little chance of a critical mass of Americans recognizing the dangers of escalating violence in a no-win conflict that has left death and destruction on both sides.

One serious concern I hear from students is that public pressure for the escalation of militarism in the Middle East will increase dramatically, if the U.S. is subject to another major terrorist attack that is traced back to Islamic fundamentalists. It’s not that these students are blindly committed to a violent response, independent of considering non-violent alternatives to war. It’s that they fear Americans haven’t effectively learned the lessons of 9/11 and the “War on Terror,” in a country notorious for historical amnesia.

Many young Americans are open to addressing future terror attacks through a criminal justice framework, in which terror suspects are extradited from the countries they occupy and brought before a court of law where charges are openly brought against them. This doesn’t mean they rule out military action, if all non-violent options have been exhausted. But my students have read analyses from anti-war critics like Noam Chomsky and others. They recognize the value of proceeding as a lawful nation – one that respects international, national, and humanitarian law – while recognizing the sovereignty of other nations, and still being vigilant in combating international terrorism. Unfortunately, their philosophical support for peaceful alternatives to future wars doesn’t count for much if this sentiment is not shared by the masses of Americans.

This September 11 is an opportunity for Americans to critically reflect on the destructiveness that the “War on Terrorism” has caused throughout the world. The instability this war has wrought on Muslim countries has further inflamed anti-American sentiment. But the United States can begin to take steps to reduce this animosity, by focusing on non-violent alternatives to the scourge of global terrorism. The stakes couldn’t be higher in an era of growing radicalism. In this time of conflict, America’s youth will be instrumental in articulating their own vision for achieving peace.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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