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Teaching 9/11, Fifteen Years Later


Thomas A. Schwartz is a professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University. A historian of U.S. foreign relations, with related interests in Modern European history and the history of international relations, he is currently writing two books: a biography of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a short history of the Cold War. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

This September 11th is the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed almost 3000 Americans and ushered us into what was once called the “Global War on Terror,” but now lacks a suitable title. I can certainly imagine many of my friends and colleagues marveling that it has been 15 years since the attacks, as it is one of those events, like Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy, where people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. My youngest daughter turned five on that day, and what I remember most was trying to follow the news while still presiding over what should be a very happy occasion. It was not easy.

My daughter grew up knowing that her birthday coincided with the most tragic day in recent American history, so it struck me as particularly ironic that in fall 2014, her first semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she enrolled in a seminar entitled, “The Literature of 9/11,” taught by Neel Ahuja, an associate professor in the English department. As any parent can attest, one of the joys of watching your children grow up comes from the way in which your relationship with them changes. After she took Professor Ahuja’s course, my daughter asked me all sorts of questions about that day in our history and debated with me the various ways Americans had responded. She knew that, as a historian of American foreign relations, I had a different perspective on some of the issues. But she was really posing the questions to me less as an academic expert and more as a contemporary witness who had experienced the intense emotions of those days. Answering her questions and discussing these issues with her made it clear to me that Professor Ahuja’s class had clearly achieved one of the central objectives of any liberal arts instruction: it had stimulated his students’ critical thinking and forced them to question their assumptions. In fact, partly as a result of his class, she wanted to minor in Islamic studies!

The "Tribute in Light" memorial is in remembrance of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The two towers of light are composed of two banks of high wattage spotlights that point straight up from a lot next to Ground Zero. This photo was taken from Liberty State Park, N.J., Sept. 11, the five-year anniversary of 9/11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould)

Imagine my surprise a year later to read that the class itself had become controversial, another subject in our endlessly polarizing political and cultural debates. A student who was not in the class had posted a note on a conservative website that criticized Professor Ahuja for not representing the victims of 9/11 and claimed that “the readings mostly focus on justifying the actions of terrorists–painting them as fighting against an American regime or as mistaken idealists or good people.” This characterization of the class, uninformed though it was, went viral and became a talking point for various conservative newspapers and websites. It was also featured in a truly cringe-producing segment of the Fox News program “Outnumbered,” during which the hosts assumed, without any evidence, that Professor Ahuja routinely “shut down debate” on the subject, that the course was another example of the waste of taxpayer money at an overpriced state institution, and that in the end, it was President Obama’s fault.[i] Because of the subject matter and also because of his name, Professor Ahuja found himself the subject of numerous hate emails, many of them telling him to go back to where he came from. (He was born where I live now, in Nashville, Tennessee.)

Ahuja’s faculty colleagues in Chapel Hill rose strongly to his defense, more than 70 of them signing an open letter that praised the course for teaching “critical thinking which is necessary for understanding the world and our place in it.” In a reference that revealed one of the local angles to the controversy, the faculty letter attacked the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative institution located in Raleigh and particularly active in North Carolina politics. The authors of the letter identified the Pope Center as leading the charge against courses like “The Literature of 9/11,” because the Center advocated “slashing courses in English departments, women studies programs, and general undergraduate curricula that do not fit the center’s narrow and ahistorical understanding of ‘western civilization’ and ‘traditional canons.'” 

This added layer of controversy only made me more curious about the nature of this course and why it had triggered this firestorm. I wrote Professor Ahuja directly and he graciously sent along the syllabus as well as a link to an article he wrote in defense of the course. I realized immediately that “The Literature of 9/11” is not a history course, but rather, as Ahuja describes it, a course which uses poetry, novels, films, and documentary materials to explore the “public memory” and legacies of the attack. Although “public memory” can be a difficult concept to define, its importance should not be underestimated. When Donald Trump claimed that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers, the true perniciousness of such efforts to distort memory was immediately apparent to any thinking observer. But in fact Ahuja’s first assignments deal with what one might call one of the “repressed memories” of 9/11: those victims who chose to jump from the towers. During the tenth anniversary commemorations, many news organizations would not run either pictures or footage that documented the “jumpers,” and I know my daughter had never seen these images. Ahuja has the students read an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s Falling Man as well as Tom Junod’s famous Esquire article, “The Falling Man.” The class also viewed Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s short film about the victims who jumped from the towers. The film espe

The 9/11 Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

The 9/11 Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

cially, with its mostly blacked-out screen, sounds of people hitting the pavement, and excerpts from the last phone calls of the victims, brought back many of the powerful emotions I felt on that day. It also demonstrates how misguided the critics were in their claim that the course neglected the perspective of the victims.

Professor Ahuja’s course did undertake, through some of the other assigned readings, to explore the motivations of those who attacked the United States. One lightning rod for the critics was Poems from Guantanamo, where the quality of the poetry is less important than the sentiments and emotions it captures. The syllabus also includes the books, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad. Collectively these books attempt to explore the thinking of Muslims alienated by Western society and radicalized by the military actions of the West. Hamid’s book is a complex exploration of the tensions created in a Pakistani-American who attends Princeton and is hired by a big Wall Street firm, but after 9/11 experiences some of the worst aspects of the American state’s response to the crisis. Khadra’s book deals with a legacy of 9/11 which continues to plague the United States, namely the war in Iraq. (The book is actually used at West Point.) As important as 9/11 is in itself, I was pleased to see that Ahuja’s course connects it with Iraq. Even if one rejects the Bush Administration’s clumsy attempts to link the two directly, it is crucial to understand the psychological connection which existed for many Americans and which led to the disastrous war.

To the extent that the course does use history, there is a unit dealing with Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” article and a response by Edward Said. This is followed by selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback. Had the Fox News critics focused on these selections, they might have made a more legitimate argument for the course’s skewed politics, as Zinn and Johnson represent extremely negative views on American foreign policy. I do realize that Zinn’s work is extraordinarily popular, but it is exceptionally over-simplified history, presenting America’s past as a struggle between good and evil, what Michael Kazin once called a “Manichean fable.”

It is probably unfair for me to criticize Professor Ahuja’s choice of history texts to include in his course since I have consciously avoided dealing with 9/11 in my own. The closest I’ve come was creating a course on the history of American involvement in the Middle East, which allowed me to play to my strength in talking about diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but only superficially dealt with the terrorist attacks. Five years ago as part of the OAH’s lectureship program, I did develop a talk whose theme was remembering 9/11 ten years after. But I ended up spending most of that lecture emphasizing how significant historical events like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination were perceived and remembered a decade after each had occurred. Doing the research for this talk proved something of a cautionary lesson: a decade was really not enough time for contemporaries to fully understand or realize the degree to which these events had changed American history. I concluded my lecture by basically dodging the question and arguing that it was really too soon to understand the full impact of 9/11. But I felt a bit like the twentieth-century Chinese leader, Zhou En-Lai, who, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, responded that it was too soon to know. That story is usually told to illustrate the difference between Chinese and Western perceptions of history. But in this case I was really trying to avoid talking about something that still hurt too deeply.

My limited experience with teaching controversial subjects also includes teaching the history of the Vietnam War, which I was asked to do when I started teaching in the mid-’80s. In the early years after the war, in part spurred by a long “60 Minutes” report, courses on the war often involved a cathartic experience for veterans, who came and told their stories, often asking for a type of absolution. The focus of these classes was about what the war did to us as Americans, with the Vietnamese side of the conflict treated sparingly or not at all. (Including a biography of Ho Chi Minh might be considered sufficient.) In my experience this started to change after the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. I still remember a student challenging me as to whether I could really say that the United States “lost” the Vietnam War. Thankfully that type of question quickly disappeared, and students became much more willing to approach the war without refighting the battles of the 1960s. What also began to change was the availability of materials dealing with Vietnamese experiences. It is now possible to teach about the war with good historical materials from both North and South Vietnam, and to portray the Vietnamese as actors in their own historical drama, not simply part of an American tragedy.

One of my favorite Vanderbilt students is now on a Fulbright scholarship teaching in Hanoi. When he told his grandmother that he was going to Vietnam, she told him that she remembered a time when everyone wanted to do the exact opposite! As someone who also lived through that time, I confess that it still seems surreal to me that it is possible to take students to Hanoi or Hue or Saigon to teach about the Vietnam conflict today. I do wonder–and sometimes hope–that 50 years from now Professor Ahuja’s students might be able to teach about 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Arab Spring from Baghdad, Damascus, or even Riyadh. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but stranger things have happened.