How Do We Teach 9/11 to Those Who Don’t Remember It?

In his condemnations of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s remarks about 9/11, President Trump offered his followers the taken-for-granted aphorism: “We will never forget.”

Yet, for those of us engaged in scholarship on national security, U.S. racism or U.S. foreign policy, we have for years encountered college-aged students who cannot actually remember September 11. This fall, students coming straight from high school will have been born after the attacks. “Never forget,” for them, is a wholesale abstraction. It calls for a generation to memorialize that which they cannot recall.

For now, let us leave aside the allegations from Trump or the New York Post that Omar’s words were disrespectful — that she minimized the hallowed and horrific memory of 9/11. Enough critical content has been written about that.

Instead, I would like to think about the pedagogical currency of 9/11, an event that is, in fact, steeped in a deep forgetfulness.

I teach classes on Islamophobia, race and global politics. These classes inevitably end up in close consideration of the events of September 11, 2001. Teaching about one of the flashpoints in U.S. Islamophobia to a room full of students who don’t actually remember it is a bit like teaching a fish it’s wet. The lasting impacts on U.S. racism of 9/11 are so entrenched, so taken-for-granted, that many of our students wear them like a second skin.

Today, students find themselves studying Islamophobia in the wake of the Christchurch attacks, the Portland stabbing, or the rise of Muslim Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. The anti-Muslim travel ban is the law of the land, and overt Islamophobes like Stephen Miller and John Bolton wield unique influence over U.S. politics. My students’ social landscape has been molded entirely by the post-9/11 racial panic that gave license for warrantless wiretapping, discriminatory airport security measures and the very creation of Homeland Security. These have become taken-for-granted backdrops to their coming-of-age. Anti-Muslim bigotry has become a given.

For many young Americans, knowledge of 9/11 comes from news, film and their schooling. As for the latter, school curricula have widely varying standards on how the events of 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terror” are taught. For some, the lesson on 9/11 includes reenactment of a rescue scene from Ground Zero or the celebration of 9/11 as “Patriot Day,” complete with hot dogs and apple pie.

These generations have been asked, time and again, to remember 9/11. But it is a memory shaped by an affective jingoism, a flag that doubles as a bludgeon. It has little room for deliberate or nuanced analysis of the events that so indelibly shaped their world.

I’d bet good money that most of these schoolroom lessons easily forget the years of eager U.S. sponsorship of “jihadist” ideology for young Afghans, ideology that came to motivate the 9/11 attackers. Never forgetting, in fact, demands forgetting the critical history that produced 9/11 — of Cold War rivalries that divided up parts of the Muslim world; that saw U.S. sponsorship of the worst forms of extremism; of interference with democratic processes that threatened U.S. interests. This type of analysis, one grounded in the historical record, is not the type of memory that’s demanded by the platitude. To even mention it is to be considered “anti-American.”

The gruesome logics of “never forget” also demand that we erase any recollection of what followed 9/11: a climate that not only singled out the most vulnerable among U.S. Muslims for deportation, detention and policing, but also saw an expansion of U.S. war powers and executive authority.

Generations of Americans now arrive at adulthood having watched Zero Dark Thirty, a film that lionizes the CIA and its use of torture. They’ve also watched American Sniper, a hagiography of a racist. And their hazy knowledge of Saddam Hussein? To them, he’s often the Iraqi dictator the U.S. heroically toppled (some mistakenly think him the 9/11 mastermind), not a one-time ally whose U.S.-backed demise created the very conditions that would give rise to ISIS (also known as Daesh).

The U.S. war in Afghanistan — the longest-standing U.S. war — has now raged through the entirety of an average high school senior’s life. For them, the war exists as a monolith, the mystery of its origins irrelevant to the fact of its existence. The enduring war is also steeped in forgetfulness.

Who among us remembers the U.S. diplomat who met with the Taliban in 1997 to discuss an oil pipeline, remarking that, “the Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of sharia law. We can live with that.” Who remembers the U.S.’s desire to provoke the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in order to drain Soviet resources in “their own Vietnam”? Who remembers the origins of the Afghan war?

Of course, this is not a permissible conversation in U.S. mainstream media and politics. That discourse is limited to memorializing the events of 9/11 in isolation, at times accompanied by reminders to be kind to peace-loving Muslims who have been swept up in a racial hysteria. Rarely does the public dialogue on 9/11 allow for geopolitics.

Today, teaching about race, Islamophobia and U.S. power is an increasingly uphill challenge. I’m reminded that my students have been made forgetful not by their own laziness or apathy, but by systems designed to instill forgetfulness and preclude a contextual analysis. It is a herculean task for the social scientist: teaching at the intersection of race and geopolitics to an audience with very little historical depth about how we arrived at today’s crisis in anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia.

But we must not shy away from this challenge. As educators, we must consistently remember that our task in teaching about race is not to parrot clichés about diversity and inclusion, but to insist that the conversation remains committed to the enduring scars of history and global power.

If we don’t bring an earnest engagement with our uncomfortable past into our pedagogy, we risk emboldening students whose ire is easily stoked by a virulent Islamophobia, the kind that attacks a Muslim congresswoman for the simple act of speaking.