TERRE HAUTE —
Incoming college freshmen this fall would have been about 8 years old when 9/11 occurred, and college faculty find that with each passing year, students know less and less about the terrorist attacks.
But they need to know and understand, says Mark Hamm, Indiana State University criminology professor. The 9/11 terrorist attack “is a historical turning point for this generation. It’s important they understand what it was and why it happened. … They need to understand why there has been such hatred against the U.S.”
Faculty from various disciplines at ISU, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology incorporate 9/11 into their classes.
Hamm’s course, Introduction to Terrorism, includes 9/11 but doesn’t focus exclusively on it.
He provides background on Osama bin Laden and al-Al-qaida and why and how they orchestrated the attacks. Hamm incorporates readings as well as PBS “Frontline” videos.
Hamm teaches criminology and the class reflects that. “I put more emphasis on the criminology of the terrorist conspiracy as opposed to the underlying geopolitical event,” he said. “My emphasis is sort of along the lines of having students identify what the precursor crimes were.”
All acts of terrorism are preceded by a series of crimes that are necessary to carry out a terrorist attack, he said.
The terrorists made many mistakes, Hamm said, and if authorities had been more vigilant, they could potentially have stopped or lessened the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks.
Terrorists “are not criminal masterminds,” he said. Many times, there are multiple instances where they could have been arrested on minor charges, which could have pre-empted the attacks.
Mohamed Atta, the hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center, had at least two visa violations and, in one instance, flew into the United States on an expired visa. Immigration authorities “let him in anyway,” Hamm said.
On the day of the terrorist attacks, Atta had an expired driver’s license, yet he still was able to fly out of Portland, Maine, and on to Boston. “Now if a driver has an expired license, we don’t get on the plane,” Hamm said.
There are several similar examples. An FBI agent reported to superiors that several individuals from the Mideast were coming to the United States to take flight lessons, information initially provided by a concerned flight instructor. The report made it to Washington, D.C., but “got buried in a stack on a supervisor’s desk,” Hamm said.
Highlighting those errors might be considered Monday morning quarterbacking, but Hamm said it’s a way to learn from mistakes.
In explaining the terrorists’ hatred toward America, Hamm says that bin Laden laid out the reasons in his own words: U.S. troops in Arab lands; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; the materialism of western culture and bin Laden’s “puritanical orientation toward Islam,” in which he believed the Islamic faith must return to its fundamental 7th Century principles.
A historical perspective on the present
ISU history professor emeritus Robert Hunter teaches about 9/11 as part of an upper division Modern Middle East course. He’s also lived in the Middle East for seven years, including three in Egypt, one in Lebanon and one in Tunisia.
He noted that the terrorist attacks sparked “an intense interest” among university students to learn more about Islam and the Middle East generally. “New positions were created in universities around the country for people like me, and enrollments in Arabic classes soared,” he said.
At ISU, his courses on the history of Islam and the modern Middle East are filled within 48 hours after pre-registration begins, he said. The Modern Middle East course deals with long-term patterns, trends and changes in the Middle East, and can provide context to understand the 9/11 attacks.
“To understand 911, you need a lot of background in Middle East society and culture,” he said.
He talks about 9/11 as an outcome of a whole series of developments in the region since 1967:
- The consolidation of autocratic, even totalitarian, regimes that left little or no room for free expression of political opinions;
- The U.S. government’s backing of such regimes because they were believed to guarantee stability and hence preserve and protect U.S. interests, which mostly involve control over certain Middle Eastern resources, including oil;
- A change in U.S. policy from no direct sustained military intervention to direct military intervention and even occupation of Middle Eastern countries (this policy shift began after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979);
- A “born again” movement among Muslims in the Arab world, leading to the growth of religious organizations, 95 percent of which were moderate, aiming at making Islam more central to politics and life in general in the hope that this would lead to the improvement of material conditions and greater freedom for people; and
- The emergence within this broad movement of a small minority of militant organizations aimed at bringing down autocratic governments by violence and establishing Islamic states.
As time passed, certain militant organizations began to react against U.S. support for dictators and against the establishment of U.S. bases and troops on Middle Eastern soil.
Underlying all of this, Hunter said, is the historic sensitivity of Middle Eastern peoples to Western intervention: Large parts of the Middle East were occupied by mostly French and British armies for more than a century, and only in the late 20th Century were Middle Easterners able to win their independence. So it was natural for many Middle Easterners to regard U.S. intervention in the region as a continuation of the old historic Western imperial control.
Under these circumstances, a clash between some Muslim organizations and the United States was inevitable. This is the underlying condition that made events like 9/11 possible, Hunter states.
Religious beliefs and terrorist actions
Pat McIntyre, a faculty member at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, teaches in the theology department.
“I incorporated a terrorism component into my intro courses because of 9/11,” she wrote. Religion-sponsored terrorism needed to be addressed. “My purpose is to give students a way to understand it so that they can reject it on grounds of reason and faith, not by bigotry or jingoistic hysteria,” she stated.
She takes students through the basics of Just War Theory (beginning with St. Augustine), which allows for killing in battle without being guilty of violating the Commandment, “You shall not kill.”
Then, she demonstrates that terrorism violates Just War tenets, so it cannot be justified on those grounds. What are religion-sponsored terrorists doing, then? They believe they are waging “Holy War,” in which God is the warrior and the human only God’s weapon (weapons don’t make choices so are not morally culpable).
Students identify the flaws in “Holy” war theory as interpreted by modern terrorists; they also look at the difference between religious and secular terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing.
Helping students understand the causes of developments in the world “gives them a much more solid, reasonable and realistic means by which to cope with them,” McIntyre wrote in an e-mail. “That which they understand, they need not fear.”
Disaster study includes terrorism
Samuel Martland, Rose-Hulman associate professor of history, teaches a course about Disasters and Modern Society, which includes 9/11 near the end of the course.
The class looks at natural disasters and accidental ones, such as those caused by industry. Then, there is 9/11, which was a disaster, but no accident.
The class looks at the “tremendous investment in homeland security” in the post-9/11 era, Martland said. They’ll discuss how preparing for terrorist attacks fits into the general picture of preparing for other disasters.
Some believe there should be a lot of investment in security to prevent terrorism, while others believe that being well-prepared for all disasters will make America a less-attractive target to terrorists, Martland said.
The class attempts to answer the question, “How do we prioritize the amount of energy and money we put into our safety?” and “How do we decide whether certain threats are more important than others?”
Some students think it’s more important to prevent death by terrorism than to prevent death from some other unwelcome causes; others believe they should be treated the same.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.