US Education and the Meaning of Terrorism: An Interview With Richard Falk and Lawrence Davidson

A US flag is draped on building across the street from Ground Zero World Trade Center in New York City on September 20, 2001. (Photo via SHutterstock)A US flag is draped on a building across the street from the World Trade Center in New York City on September 20, 2001. (Photo: Larry Bruce /

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Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002, he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in global and international studies.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His academic research focused on the history of US foreign relations with the Middle East. He taught courses in Middle East history.

Truthout recently spoke with Richard Falk and Lawrence Davidson about current events in the Middle East, the US presidential election, gun violence in the United States, academia in a post-9/11 world and terrorism. Their insights and observations of US culture and how the aforementioned items intersect with education are pertinent in the current geopolitical climate and world order.

In addressing these issues, Falk speaks of the element of fear and our inadequacy to “call attention to the detrimental effects of US ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia.” Davidson adds that “the US is suffering a blowback crisis.”

Dan Falcone: The first question I wanted to ask concerns academic freedom in the United States. This concept has recently been widely discussed in the context of the post-9/11 world. Could you discuss the impacts of 9/11 on education? What has changed and what has remained the same?

Richard Falk: I think the impacts of 9/11 on academic freedom vary greatly depending on locale and time (softening with the passage of time), and even within the same community, and likely within the same schools. This variability makes it difficult to offer generalized responses without accompanying caveats.

I do think there is an enhanced awareness of insecurity and vulnerability that induces anxiety that creates pressure on teachers and administrators to offer simplistic explanations and to be resistant to expressions of attitudes that can be viewed as unpatriotic, which is further interpreted as applicable to any tendency to challenge the government when it claims to be acting overseas to avoid repetitions of 9/11 or to encroach on domestic freedom to identify suspicious persons and behaviors. This kind of totalization of security consciousness has the effect within classrooms (and beyond) of constraining the imagination and reinforcing attitudes that privilege the forces of law and order as against the crosscurrents of freedom and dissent.

In this regard, especially within university settings, the detrimental overall effect is to encourage a conformist outlook and to inhibit critical thinking. An aggravating feature of this post-9/11 atmosphere is to cast suspicions on Muslims and on Islam as a religion that is interpreted as either inherently violent or death-oriented, with a particular animus against America and Americans.

Lawrence Davidson: Educational institutions are just that – institutions – and they are embedded within their particular cultures. In the West, most of these institutions do profess independent ideals such as academic freedom and systems of tenure, but those ideals are always – and to varying extent – in tension with the expectations and demands of society and its power structures.

Thus, when a society feels fear and anxiety, ideals become harder to maintain. Also, when elements of a society’s power structure start to feel threatened by activities carried on at educational institutions, then, too, ideals will be harder to maintain. This is particularly true if the institutions are in some way economically dependent on that power structure.

This is the situation that has evolved since 9/11 and the heightened awareness of the impact of US policies and alliances in the Middle East. To the extent that these are publicly criticized on US university and college campuses under the auspices of academic freedom, tenure rights etc., those ideals will come under attack.

John Dewey believed in using education as a lever for social change. Bertrand Russell also wrote about the value of a child’s intrinsic nature in regards to education. Did either of these thinkers impact how you acquired knowledge over the course of your life?

Falk: Neither Dewey nor Russell had any direct impact on my intellectual development or political orientation, although as an adult both were figures I have held in the highest regard, viewing Noam Chomsky as something of their contemporary successor, combining pervasive moral rectitude with a superior analytic grasp of the complexities that torment the body politic at home and throughout the world.

I did study philosophy at Columbia for a couple of summers, and took some courses with professors who stood firmly in the Dewey tradition, and hopefully something rubbed off. In some ways, I had been more directly influenced by [Thomas] Jefferson, who wrote so eloquently, although with discredited optimism, about his expectation that the cumulative effects of an educated citizenry would ensure the improving quality of democracy in America. Of course, such a linkage has been long undone by the “dumbing down” of the public via the ever more corporatized media. Unless education is liberated from both state control and the passions of the market, it is highly susceptible to manipulation, making the public exceedingly vulnerable to fears and “enemies,” as well as to artificially generated desires.

What both the state and the capitalist economy oppose is an understanding of what might be called “the true nature of things” (using the phrase without metaphysical pretensions), especially injustices and exploitative practices. Nothing is more important than restoring a high degree of autonomy to educational experiences so that those who grow up in this society and troubled world have the best available tools to grasp the challenges that imperil our national and human future.

I would add a further thought, which benefits from the Dewey/Russell/Chomsky exemplary models – the importance of an often neglected educational imperative of encouraging “responsible citizenship,” which depends on coupling the privileges of citizenship with its duties, especially the need to strike a creative balance between interests and conscience.

Davidson: Not that much. Dewey and Russell were idealists. They projected the possibilities of a good education and even sparked a number of reform efforts seeking to move the reality of the classroom toward their ideals. But, in truth, such reforms are always temporary. This is because education has always had two basic goals that have nothing to do with the potential of the individual student.

The first goal is to make the student a “good citizen.” This is particularly the case for “K through 12” education. The process brings the student in line with the “values” of his society – causes him to see the world like his neighbors do, support the government etc. The goal here is social cohesion. All societies use their educational systems to this end.

The second goal is economic – to prepare the student to be a white- or blue-collar worker. Someone who, in Foucault’s words, is “docile yet capable.”

By the way, whenever you hear or read about a school or school system failing, it is these two categories by which it is being judged.

To the extent that a student acquires knowledge that somehow goes beyond these two categories, or calls them into question, he or she has done so not because of the educational system, but despite it.

During the Cold War, students in schools were instructed to hide under desks to protect themselves from invasion and nuclear attack. In schools today, administrators conduct emergency lockdown drills and hide students in classrooms. When students ask about the purpose of the drills, they are really attempting to get a sense of larger issues at play in the country. The teachers are often confused on how to answer the students. Could you offer any explanations to what this all means in terms of our legislative system and the culture of fear? What are the roots of our susceptibility?

Falk: I think these pathetic efforts to counteract some real concerns, inflamed by fearmongering, as epitomized by the absurdity of ducking under desks to avoid the effects of an attack with nuclear weapons, really reveal a situation of unacknowledged helplessness. Officialdom, having scared the public, is faced with the need to offer some antidote to the acute sense of vulnerability that has been induced.

Doing something, however pathetic, is psychologically better than doing nothing. In the current political environment – that is, with no more Cold War tensions – the tendency is to counteract the feelings of fear and vulnerability with a variety of military, paramilitary and police measures, despite the reality that this kind of excessive reliance on force in many ways intensifies the very problem it is purporting to solve. Our leaders are so socialized as to address militarized threats by acting on the basis of a militarized mentality that the deep roots of problems are ignored.

There is no consideration given to the “legitimate grievances” that the adversary possesses, and an avoidance of “self-scrutiny” that might identify proximate causes. For instance, looking more deeply at the emergence of ISIS or the chaos that exists in Syria, Yemen and Libya would clearly raise crucial doubts about reliance on military intervention and drone warfare as adequate counterterrorist responses and would call attention to the detrimental effects of US “special relationships” with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Davidson: The US is suffering a blowback crisis. The legislative structure responds first and foremost to lobbies and special interests and not to national or community interests. This has resulted in a society with many social problems that is also armed to the teeth. It has also resulted in decades of ill-advised policies that have turned much of the Middle East and Muslim world into enemies of the US. The vast majority of teachers are ignorant of how all of this came about and are true believers of the explanations and propaganda supplied by government and the media. Let’s just hope the simplistic explanations they give their students as to why they can readily be in danger in their own classrooms is recognized as unsatisfactory. At that point, some students might look for better answers.

In preparation for the next national election, schools across the country are preparing mock elections that simulate the leading Democratic and Republican candidate for president of the United States. This mainstay makes it very difficult to penetrate conventional misconceptions of the political order. Can you elaborate on how exercises such as this reinforce educational ignorance?

Falk: To be so preoccupied on the forthcoming presidential elections tends to reinforce two exceedingly misleading ideas. First, that formal elections produce the kind of leadership that the country needs; this is a delusionary expectation, given the corrupting and pervasive influence of money and special interests on how national presidential campaigns are conducted. Secondly, such an emphasis encourages public passivity by the implication that change and justice are achieved from “above” rather than [what] has always been the case – by agitation and movements from “below.”

Unless a critical view is set forth that both shows the degree to which the electoral dialogues are dysfunctional and constrained (for example, the candidate have not mentioned – nor have the media inquired – about what to do about the menace posed by nine governments retaining arsenals of nuclear weapons) and introduces students to the vital importance of civic activism, a false consciousness is created as to the real agenda of the country.

Davidson: These exercises misrepresent the Republican lineup as a “normal” one. Even within the American political milieu, with its history of imperialism abroad and inequitable capitalism at home, the present Republican lineup for president represents a qualitative low point. However, this bit of reality cannot be contextualized within the mock elections and debates. For a teacher to do so means risking their positions. This situation reinforces the fact that education is designed to create loyal citizens. There may be a contradiction between “loyal citizens” and those who are adept at analyzing their political and economic environment, but educational institutions are usually oblivious to it.

Recently, the Israeli minister of education, Naftali Bennett, remarked that “anyone who lifts a hand against Israel must die.” Israeli soldiers and settlers, with US support, killed nearly 100 Palestinians since the fall of 2015. The United States also maintains alliances with the military dictatorship of Egypt and the most fundamentalist Middle East country, Saudi Arabia. All of this leads to a very strange definition of “terrorism” on the part of the US educational system. Can you comment on the problematic nature of defining “terrorism?”

Falk: So far, the official definitions of terrorism have the role of demonizing the enemies of the United States and Israel, and of sanitizing recourse to indiscriminate force by both governments that causes widespread death of innocent civilians. This double standard is built around the current way in which the vocabulary of terrorism is being used in this country. There is no effort to acknowledge some equivalent accountability by associating “terrorism” with all violence that is deliberately aimed at civilians, either directly or as foreseeable effects of violent acts, whether the actor is a non-state individual or group or the state.

Looked at objectively, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths resulting from political violence are produced by what should be understood as “state terror.” Terrorism also serves as an excuse to avoid diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of conflict. The British leadership has acknowledged that it only became possible to end the violence in North Ireland when it stopped thinking of the [Irish Republican Army] as “a terrorist organization” and began treating it as a political actor with genuine grievances that deserved to be addressed.

Israel and the United States refuse to do this with respect to Hamas, despite its abandonment of a strategy of armed struggle with respect to Israel, its offers of long-term peaceful coexistence and its own decision in 2006 to seek influence by opting for a political track rather than a military one.

Hamas retains the right to defend Gaza by the use of the weaponry at its disposal, and is thus not committed to nonviolence, but it does offer the possibility of greater peace and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians if the label of “terrorism” was abandoned and the search for accommodation was commenced in good faith. Beyond this, American special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia blind us to their dreadful encroachments on human rights, as well as confer impunity on their leaders with respect to accountability for crimes against humanity.

Davidson: I was once asked, “Who are the terrorists?” and answered that, while there are objective definitions for the violence that entails terrorism, the terrorists are those labeled so by one’s government and media. And, these sources usually do not make clear the definitions they are using.

Both teachers and students usually don’t have the breadth of knowledge that would allow them to think for themselves about such a scary topic and so the classroom becomes an echo chamber for state propaganda.

There are, of course, isolated classroom environments where this pervasive ignorance can be challenged. This is mostly at the college and university level. But even here most students (and their teachers) are so indoctrinated that they are largely immune from challenges to the official line. The situation does, however, speak to the importance of the tenure system.