None of My Students Remember 9/11Roundup
tags: war on terror, 9/11, teaching history
Amy Zegart is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. She is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and the author of the forthcoming book Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press).
This fall marks the 21st year I will be teaching college students about the September 11 terrorist attacks. It used to be that 9/11 was a trauma shared by everyone. Now it is a day that no one in my classroom but me remembers.
Educating successive generations of teenagers about the intelligence failures that led to that day has been a strange and surprising journey. At first, I struggled to find ways to take the emotion out of my teaching—to bring logical reasoning, historical perspective, and careful analysis to a moment that seemed to defy all of those things. Now I struggle to put the emotion back in, helping students who weren’t yet born when al-Qaeda terrorists attacked our nation understand the visceral context and swirling uncertainties that intelligence officials and policy makers faced.
I started teaching about 9/11 on 9/11. At the time, I was a newly minted public-policy professor at UCLA writing a book about how American national-security agencies were adapting to the end of the Cold War. The World Trade Center towers collapsed between 7 and 7:30 a.m. in California. I watched the news live on television as I fed my toddlers breakfast. After shuffling my kids away from the TV screen and sobbing in my husband’s arms, I got into my car and drove to campus.
Colleagues and I decided to hold an impromptu seminar. The lecture hall was soon overflowing, with students, staff, and faculty sitting on the floor and crammed in the aisles, some of them crying. It was hot; the air was stifling. The room had wood-paneled desks and walls that made it feel like a Cold War bunker. I remember thinking how it seemed so out-of-date, a hallmark of false protection in a terrifying new world.
I didn’t have answers that day about why American intelligence agencies couldn’t stop al-Qaeda. It was far too soon to know what had gone so wrong, and why; the search for answers would end up driving my academic research for the next decade. But I had questions, and history—I had studied surprise attacks and past intelligence failures. Together, my colleagues and I did the only thing we knew how: We tried to make sense of the world, to begin searching for explanations for something that seemed inexplicable.
In that awful room on that awful day, my students taught me a lesson that’s lasted a lifetime: Learning is an act of community. My students weren’t looking for answers. Just being together, grappling together, inquiring together to find some small way through our collective grief, was enough.
For many years after 9/11, students came to my class with powerful feelings and personal experiences. One had escaped the Taliban in Afghanistan. Another had enlisted in the Army after 9/11, serving in Iraq before attending college. When I casually asked on the first day of class that year why students were taking my course, his hand shot up. “I want to know why my buddy died in Iraq,” he said. “I want to know why I was there.”
Then, students sought certainties; I pressed them to see complexities. I assigned my own research alongside an article that argued I was completely wrong, so that they could see how even experts armed with logic and facts could disagree about root causes—and how engaging contending points of view could make their own understanding richer.
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