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The Reality Factor in Educating Children About Sept. 11

September 01, 2002|ABRAHAM COOPER and HAROLD BRACKMAN | Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the center.

With the first anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Americans have a special obligation to teach our children not to forget. But what are we supposed to remember? At least six things.

* Don't be afraid of the truth about the terrorist war against America. Last Sept. 11, Middle Eastern fanatics attacked the United States without provocation. More than 3,000 people were killed. Politically correct euphemisms and evasions shouldn't hide the fingerprints of those responsible.

Yet the National Education Assn.'s "lesson plans" concerning one of the most infamous days in U.S. history promotes historical amnesia. It urges teachers to "address the issue of blame factually" but then obscures the truth with the caveat: "Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise."

A year later, does the NEA still harbor doubts that there is "solid, reliable evidence" establishing the guilt of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's global "jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews"? Why is it so difficult to find someone at fault?

* There is no contradiction between teaching positive values and identifying our enemies. The NEA promises that its 9/11 Web site will feature the Declaration of Independence, Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But why stop there? All these great declarations affirmed freedom, yet none had difficulty identifying freedom's enemies--from King George III, to dictatorship, to segregation. King refused to demonize his opponents but knew that he was on God's side--and Jim Crow was not--in the struggle for racial justice. It is no sin to know who's on our side--and who isn't--in a just war against terrorism.

* Americans must reject collective guilt and have zero tolerance for hate crimes against any group. We need to zealously defend our diversity and acceptance of people from a multiplicity of backgrounds and creeds. The vast majority of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans proudly belong to our nation's "gorgeous mosaic." They have no connection with terrorist attacks. The war on terrorism cannot become an invitation to attack these and other loyal Americans. Any threats against these minority communities should be denounced by people of goodwill and prosecuted as hate crimes.

* Don't blame the victim for the terrorist atrocities committed against us. Here too the NEA is an unreliable guide. It urges teachers to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance" such as the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Arab Americans during the Gulf War, so Americans can avoid "repeating terrible mistakes." Fair enough. But such cautionary tales can't substitute for teaching about what really happened on 9/11, and why. What we need are lesson plans exploring the deadly parallel between the current war on terrorism and the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Why were Americans unprepared in 1941 and again in 2001?

* Teaching about the challenges of terrorism should begin early. We should not overload impressionable young minds, but we can't wait until the 12th grade to begin to enlighten young people about 21st century threats. The NEA believes that it's never too early to teach sex education, and maybe it's right. But why not also begin teaching patriotism and our obligation to defend the nation from enemies, foreign and domestic, in the elementary grades?

* Why America's fights have to be carried beyond the classroom. During World War II, movie maker Frank Capra produced a documentary film series, "Why We Fight," to educate both soldiers and civilians. While there has been a recent rash of feel-good patriotic films, much more needs to be done to solidify the 9/11 generation's understanding of why we are in this war.

Almost a year into our war against terror, there should be a consensus on at least this much: An international Arab and Islamic terrorist movement, formerly headquartered in Afghanistan but now dispersed, has declared war on the United States. These enemies have convinced a significant minority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims that their religion justifies a jihad, or holy war, against the United States. Their aim is not merely to drive the United States out of the Middle East and obliterate Israel but to destroy our democratic society.

Before World War II, the Western democracies did not take Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" seriously enough until it was too late. Even after war came in 1939, they fought a phony war until German and Japanese successes left them no choice but to fight for their lives. Today, we should not be lulled into complacency by early successes in Afghanistan. It would also be a terrible mistake to revert to the rhetoric of partisan politics.

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