Randy Roberts: 9-11 now history

Historians in the News

Writing about 9/11 is not a textbook case for historians, says a Purdue University history expert.

"When students read about Pearl Harbor, World War II and the Cold War in their textbooks, it has always been clear what nations the United States was at odds with," says Randy Roberts, a professor of American history. "The war on terror is not so clear. Terrorism is associated with the Middle East, but historians do not want to use broad brushstrokes to condemn the actions of a few. What we are dealing with is more amorphous and historians are careful when it comes to explaining 'us' versus 'them.'"

This year marks the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Virginia and Pennsylvania. School-age youths who watched the attacks or followed the coverage on television are balancing those memories with what they are reading in their classrooms, Roberts says.

American history textbooks are revised about every four years to incorporate the new presidential administration, says Roberts, who co-wrote one high school and two college American textbooks, and has edited several others. He also is the 2006 Indiana Professor of the Year.

"Some students may not even think of 9/11 as history because it is so real for them," he says. "People think about it every time they board a plane or go through airport security."

And because 9/11 is still in the news, some people may disagree with how historians explain the event.

"I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and people from my generation remember the events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, as well as neighbors who built bomb shelters and the movies that featured communist enemies," he says. "We often define ourselves in relation to our enemy. We view ourselves as an open society that promotes freedom, diversity, democracy and respect for every human life. We value things that terrorists by definition don't value. I think the war on terrorists makes us reaffirm our own core beliefs and asks us how do we fight this enemy without diminishing our own beliefs?"
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