So, It’s ‘9/11’ Again In America? How Do We Teach It? – Essay


It’s been 21 years since the terrorist attack on American soil. Time to teach it. On Friday morning September 9, I sent out a message below to my educator-colleagues:

Dear colleagues,

As we know, this Sunday is 9/11 and traditionally the Social Studies department will commemorate it with a special lesson. It has been 21 years since the event and our current students were not born yet. That day a few minutes after 9 AM, I had just finished teaching my US History II class and the announcement came from the principal. One tower after the other fell and the place where I was, was in chaos. A metaphor of a scene from the story of the “war of the worlds” radio-narrated by Orson Wells. Students were screaming and calling their parents. A crisis center was immediately set up. In the town I used to live in, two parents of my soccer kid’s friends did not return from work at the Twin Towers.

That was my experience. Then came months and years of living with it, as an educator and academic trying to make sense of it and trying to help my students contextualize what happened. Explanations abound on the cause of the 9/11 attack on American soil. Hundreds of them. Some are called conspiracy theories, although naming them as such closes the doors to further inquiry. A book by the government “9/11 Commission” came a few years after the national tragedy.

How we approach the lesson should be an interesting and enriching challenge for that “teachable moment” in Social Studies. We have our perspectives and our way of explaining, based on the information, knowledge, and understanding we acquired in experiencing or reading about the event, from faraway lands as well.

What has worked for me over the years is, teaching through Socratic dialogue on a very difficult subject. Perspectives are welcome but I would focus on the fact that the innocents died on 9/11 and the powerless and those who went to work that day for their daily grind perished.  Peace education is the approach, I’d take after entertaining perspectives.  I believe that once we enter the zone of secularly-sacred learning called the “classroom,” all opinions matter and all perspectives are respected, and ultimately, we are the guide, through our wisdom, seeing Humanity in all things, rather than being immersed in the politics of perception, half-truths, violence, or any ideological leanings one would have in seeing the world. Theoretically, we are “Socrates-Montessori-Dewey-Freire-Howard Gardner” in the classroom. To teach students how to think rather than what to think.

Have a wonderful lesson on 9/11/2022


A few years after the incident, I wrote a column piece in Malaysia which I reproduce below, linking the semiotics of numbers with some aspects of Malaysia’s history as well.

“9/11, 7/11, 1511”: Semiotics of war and peace

Nineteen years ago, there was no Ground Zero in the Wall Street district. Five years ago, I saw children on cell phones sobbing in school libraries that were turned into crisis management centers in a matter of minutes, as the television stations carried live the horror in broad daylight on Wall Street.

Every time I cruise by New Jersey’s West New York and glance across the Hudson River where the Twin Towers once adorned the skyline, I would see billowing smoke meandering across the cityscape of Frank Sinatra’s serenade – of the city that never sleeps. New York 24/7.

I asked myself – is this the work of human beings? Which God would permit such a hideous crime against humanity? I recalled Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous maxim “Everything is good in the hands of the Author of Things. Everything degenerates in the hands of Man”. I had some answers to my question on good and evil. I needed more questions on how the world was constructed since the rise of America as the sole empire of the post-Cold War period. This America – has also become part of me. The America of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

For months, the Armageddon on Wall Street became a reminder of what happened after 9/11 and what happens next, and how much has changed in the world many “Gala-consciousness” activists would call “Spaceship Earth”.

America of the Common Man was fed with a steady supply of soundbites from the corporate media; the producers of truth educating its consumers on what the word “jihad” means and how closely tied it is with “globalization Americans were made to believe that it was an “attack on democracy”.

Months after that I found myself discussing with my students of political science Ben Barber’s now classic piece “Jihad versus McWorld” to understand what was going on. The work of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Zygmunt Bauman, Michel Foucault, Ward Churchill, and Noam Chomsky became popular amongst American academics trying to understand the complex phenomena that led to the collapse of the towers.

America saw its enlightened citizens reading voraciously about Islam. America began to read a steady series of conspiracy theories on why the towers fell. Filmmaker Michael Moore began to produce his “Fahrenheit 9/11” and many other independent producers were crafting urban narratives of the tragedy, culminating in the latest one called “Loose Change.”

America of the common Man from the “blue state” was ready to learn what his government has been doing for centuries.

In writing this essay for Malaysians, I thought of the numbers “1511”, “7/11”, and “9/11”. All of them are symbols of disasters.

But how?

1511 and 7/11

1511 – the magic number of the fall of the kingdom of Malacca in ancient Malaya and the end of the days of the Malay sultans. What was that all about? It was the advent of European mercantilism and the expansion of colonies. While Malacca fell in the hands of the Portuguese amidst the struggle for wealth and power of the greedy and warring Malay sultans, New York was being colonized by the Dutch, with names like New Amsterdam and “The Bronx” in New York City and Bergen County in New Jersey being installed.

New York City became the haven for “corporate pirates” of that era, a place wherein bootleggers and smugglers reigned. A gamblers’ den of a globalized proportion it was; a den that further transformed itself into this iconoclastic- emblematic-semiotic capital of Western free enterprise in the name “Wall Street.”

And I am also thinking of the chain store 7/11, a McDonaldized symbol of corporate America, installed through a form of democracy patrolled by nuclear submarines.

What is it about?

It is about the challenges we face as humanity continues to progress, amongst those are:

Nationally we continue to live in a political system that is based not only on the deformed and degenerating politics of race and economic greed that favors the rich and members of political dynasties but also a system that is threatened with a continuing disregard for human rights; fundamental principles of liberties that ought to protect minorities in a religiously pluralistic and complex state.

Nationally we continue to see abandoned hopes for nations to evolve into a truly multicultural society as we witness the institutionalization of racism not only in the way we think and act daily but in the way we construct our educational, cultural, economic, and political institutions. The way we conduct our dialogue on religion and race has lately reflected a clearer and uglier politics of mistrust. The War on Terrorism itself has become yet another leitmotif of hatred and irrationalism couched in the name of national and international security.

Globally, we are faced with challenges in the areas of scientific advancement, morality, economics, ethnic and religious conflicts, population, and health.

Scientific advancements and control of knowledge and technology continue to be in the hands of the rich nations with the poor, “developing”, and “newly-industrializing and informationalizing” ones become slaves in the global production and consumption of technologies. Our scientific world of inquiry and human imagination to solve human problems has become a world of Orwellian drama; one of despair characterized by the use of science for deadly purposes. Markets for weapons are constantly being created so that warring nations may decimate each other while arms dealers may profit as merchants of death.

In each country of the world, the pattern of ownership of the scientific and technological advances mirrors the pattern of have and have-nots of the world, of the Center-Periphery dependency mode of global political-economic design.

Morality issue

Morality becomes a central issue of this millennium as we question our role as individuals that are defined by the means of subsistence/economic conditions we are in. As human beings merely become “knowledge workers” and corporate executives in multinational corporations that have no national governments to answer to, they become merely one of the minute functions of the machinery of global exploitation in virtually all spheres of human activities.

Prime Ministers and presidents of “developing”, “industrializing” or “advancing” nations are now assuming the role of chief executive officers of international oligopoly capitalists; their worth reduced merely as beneficiaries of the international owners of production. The great Indonesian poet WS Rendra’s character in Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga (‘The Struggle of the Naga Tribe’ written circa the mid-1970s) Sri Ratu caricaturize well how Third World political elite skim off percentages from internationally-backed development projects.

Coming back to the issue of morality, one can still rationalize one’s work as a scientist in nuclear weapons labs in New Mexico, in an oil drill company in Iraq, in a pesticide-making subsidiary in the Philippines, a designer sneaker-producing company in Vietnam, in a daisy-cutter bomb factory, or in a diamond-mining company in South Africa. As long as profits roll into the coffers of the parent and recipient nation and benefit the power elites, child labor and poor working conditions in the sweatshops are acceptable – in the name of democracy and development.

Global economics continues to become a centerpiece of issues we will need to understand in order to become change agents and informed citizens in this precarious world of interdependence. The role of The World Bank and International Monetary Fund as twin instruments of global domination, borne out of the post-World War II Bretton Woods agreement, continues to be challenged peacefully and violently as the world continues to produce more and more impoverished nations as a consequence of policies of ideological lending and structurally imperialistic adjustments.

Presidents of the World Bank continue to be groomed by hawks of the American ultra-conservative mold, with Paul Wolfowitz as one example. Developments in Latin America of late are pointing towards a transformation of the people’s view towards economics – governments that favor the national poor and not the international plunderers will triumph at the polls. The constant revolutions and re-evolution that happen across time and space and across all nations, as many a Maoist theoretician would contend, are a testament to the thesis-antithesis notion of human evolution.

Ethnic and religious conflicts continue to splash the headlines of our global newspapers, with not only border conflicts perpetually increasing but deadly attacks on public places where the innocent work and play become a feature of post-Sept 11, 2001 fallout. Every nation is now threatened by the ever-growing tide and tsunamis of racial and religious violence.

“Religion of the Man”, as Jean Jacques Rousseau would say, has been transformed into “religion of the State” carrying with it the rationalization for truncated jihads, senseless crusades, Mahabharatas of blind dharmas, questionable kamikazes, globalized amok, or any form of religious war one may culturally connote.

War over oil

The prolonged occupation in Iraq and the obvious “no-victory-in-sight” of the American forces has become a national issue in America – how long will she let her children die and how many more of the children of the American underclass must be drafted through the economic drafting ideology. The nation has become “Cindy Shehan-ized” in a country Bush-whacked by a Texan gun-slinging cowboy-typed foreign policy. Currently, more than 3,000 American soldiers/children of the nation have perished in a war over oil that has probably killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children.

War is a crime against humanity, as one Russian diplomat L Bobrakov, once said in an article. We now have the crisis in Lebanon; a perpetual reminder of the historical-materialistic, geographic, and political-economic dimensions of the ever-evolving conflictualizing Middle East.

Though the destruction of Iraq is purely economic in nature, it is also perceived as a religious war that has wide-ranging and global ideological implications. Reports on Osama bin Laden’s purportedly latest “warning against the Americans” continue to conjure the continuation of a “religious war” but in America however, this message has been overplayed.

The American fear is now centering on the institutionalizing of a national wiretapping. As Massachusetts Information Technology (MIT) linguist-peace activist Noam Chomsky would say, “fear is the weapon of the administration against the people of America” so that the military-industrial complex can continue to live and breathe its ideology. Instill fear of those “orange”, “red”, or whatever color alert and the people will, in the name of “fear” continue to support the war machinery that is bulldozing nations defined as “rogue/terrorist states.”

What do all these means?

We continue to live in an Orwellian work that still does not make sense. We live in a matrix of complexities run by generalissimos in their labyrinths, as the Latin American Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marques would say. Perhaps the only sane way for one to live would be, as the neo-Marxist American thinker, Frederic Jameson would say, to construct a “personal cartography of oneself” so that we may know where to locate ourselves in a world wherein nature, with the aid of technology, is stolen by culture to become Das Kapital. That’s the story of Frankenstein in us.

Till then, the story of our 7/11 is this: we emerge at the eleventh hour of Creation – just to transform into Creators of 9/11s.

Let there be Peace.

That is what I wrote about 9/11 many years ago. Back to the way we can begin to teach History and contemporary affairs. Below I share my view on how I have approached it, from a meaningful perspective. 

Organic-Personacratic History we need 

In one of my previous columns on making History personal, organic, and meaningful I wrote about strategies of teaching one can experiment. I reproduce a major part of the essay:

I want to share an opinion on teaching about the past, within the paradigm of “existentialist historicizing”, which means looking at studying and embodying history as a subjective and personalizing enterprise of learning and self-reflection.

The essential question is: How must we teach History in this age of chaos and complexity in which the self yearns to be free? I wrote these recently in crafting statements of pedagogy in my course syllabus on Modern World History:

“… Through this course of study, we will acquire the skills of thinking and feeling like a historian: mastering the art and science of historicizing, discerning patterns of change, understanding “the butterfly effect” and causal relationships in historical changes, and learning lessons from past events, so that we may understand how we can build a better world and plan for a peaceful and sustainable one.  … “

What about the concepts we ought to teach? I wrote the following:

“… We begin with the idea that we are entering a “Brave New Normal”. I borrowed this term from the work of the American writer Aldous Huxley, entitled Brave New World.

Historicizing. Connections. Transformations. Transcultural Migrations. Causal Relationships. Complex Systems and Human Evolution. Chaos Theory and Human History. Big Data, Big History. Auto-Bio History and the Nurturing of Personal Memory. Futurism and Alternate History.

These are some of the main concepts we will be directly and indirectly exploring as we guide learners in their journey to appreciate the study of the past, so that we (students and teachers alike, the (Paulo) Freirian tradition of “subjectivizing the objective) may plan our future as sustainable, ethical, creative, and cognitively resilient human beings, living in peace with one another. History is an organic field of study, as we will discover in our journey.

These are big words: the concepts and those in the phrases used in narrating what History is. Nonetheless, as the Russian social learning theorist Lev Vygotsky would say, we’ll bring these down to the level of manageable and most importantly, meaningful understanding. Similarly, the American pragmatist philosopher and the educational philosopher of the Progressive tradition would agree that this is a meaningful way to educate: putting the child/learner at the center of the curriculum.

I also wrote these in my first day message to students: “I am excited to guide you through this journey. I will, most importantly, learn from you and what you will bring to our classroom (virtually or physically), your experiences, your culture, hopes, creativity, and the ability to understand what ‘the power of knowing’ means.”

What about the skills I wish to impart?

Besides helping them explore the key concepts will I want them to also acquire the skills of thinking and feeling like a historian.

By the end of the academic year, I want my students to be able to do the following with expected degrees of competency:

–        Evaluate primary and secondary sources

–        Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning you find in sources

–        Put historical developments in context and make connections between them

–       Come up with a claim or thesis and explain and supporting it in writing

–       Bring history closer to their “lived experience.”.

Learning is also about effecting a change in attitude. I wrote:

“… Learning will be most effective when meaning comes to the learner. As the 5th. Century BC philosopher Socrates would say, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. So is learning. Meaning will also come with a change in perception and beliefs that will then direct action. In other words, as it relates to what we will be doing in studying history, learning ought to shape our attitude.

It should make us realize that we are masters of our own destiny and makers of our own history.

The larger personal goal of learning history is to appreciate the stories that chronicle and characterize the “Grand Narrative” (of other people’s glorifies stories and how major events shape today’s world). The next level after appreciation is to find patterns in them and to make personal and family, as well as “ancestral” connections– so that we may learn the value and the meaning of justice, peace, joys, sufferings, transformations, sense of liberation that color the human experience.

Essentially as you may realize, we are makers of our own history and writers of our own stories. The stories in our study of world history are merely sub-texts (larger contexts of shifts in human evolution) that can guide us hopefully, into finding similarities of experience within ourselves. A special mention is this: we are living in yet another threshold of human experience, in a world yearning to be free from the pandemic of Covid-19. We will factor this significant historical-evolutionary marker in our journey through world history. … “

Essentially and to close this brief opinion piece related to learning, I’d say that we ought to break away completely from the teaching of History that buries our children in the avalanche of facts to the regurgitated and loaded with the information they will later find useless. Rather, we must begin with the notion that learning becomes joyous and liberating when we bring meaning to our own lives. In short, History and the teaching of it must be made organic and personacratic —so that we may appreciate our own stories, rather than be forced to carry the burden of history by memorizing other people’s “gloriousness” which may in fact be stories of vainglory, crafted to funnel in our mind this and that ideology.


I close this reflection on the teaching of 9/11 by asserting that the world continues to revolve, and society evolves in all its complexities, leaving us as educators with the dilemma of having to analyze till we are mentally paralyzed. Social scientists may continue to debate which of the paradigms/model of looking at things – Structural-Functionalism, Conflict Paradigm, Symbolic Interactionism – can offer the best lenses in analyzing phenomena, and in this case, the event of “9/11”. And then there is the idea of Chaos or Complexity Theory that we can adopt and adapt to our theorizing and next application to help our students see things and offer explanations. 

We may continue our analysis-paralysis mode of thinking as educators, offering only questions and more generative questions to our students –because we cannot impose our truth on them – and ultimately, we have done our part in playing our role as organic, dynamic, thinking, and feeling educators. Ultimately is not what “education” means – from the Latin “Educare” or “drawing out” (the potentials) from our students. And that these potential explanations are what make thinking – and democracy – alive? 

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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