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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

H-Net's Vice President for Teaching, Prof. Steven Mintz of the University of Houston, has been overseeing the development of essays, annotated links, and online materials related to teaching, research, and education in the history of terrorism.

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Background
  3. Teaching Tragedy
  4. The Concept of Tragedy
  5. Religion
  6. Literature and Terror
  7. Alternatives to Violence
  8. Lesson Plans
  9. Chronologies
  10. Glossary
  11. Web Resources
  12. Essential Readings


On September 11, 2001, hijackers turned three commercial airlines into missiles and attacked key symbols of American economic and military might. These hideous attacks leveled the World Trade Center towers in New York, destroyed part of the Pentagon, and left Americans in a mood similar to that which the country experienced after the devastating Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The horror of what happened on September 11, 2001, almost defies imagination. More than five thousand innocent civilians perished as a result of these acts of terror-twice the number of Americans who died on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France, and even more than the 3,620 Americans who died at the Civil War battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, previously the largest number of Americans to die in combat on a single day. More Americans died in two hours on September 11th than died in the American Revolution.

Many of our students are eye-witnesses to history. They watched in horror as a passenger airliner struck one of the towers of New York's World Trade Center and gasped in disbelief as the structures collapsed and the Pentagon, too, was attacked.

One of our greatest challenges as teachers is to help our students come to terms with these horrific events. Our students must cope with fear, anger, despair, uncertainty, and a sense of helplessness. We cannot wipe away the horror of these events-nor do we want to. But we can help our students better understand what they witnessed, and therefore help them recover from this time of sorrow.

Reckoning With Tragedy

For many American students, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were their first experience with a true national tragedy. Unlike their parents, whose souls and spirits were wounded by the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King or the death of brothers and classmates during the Vietnam war, these students, for the most part, have grown up during a period of prosperity and relative peace. They have no memory of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and may not remember the devastating attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City.

This is the first time they have had to deal with the depths of sadness that accompany such a depraved act. Also, this is the first time that they have experienced the national unity that follows such a tragedy.

There are many aspects of the tragedy of September 11th that American history teachers are ill-prepared to teach. Some key issues require a solid grounding in Middle Eastern and Near Eastern history, such as why radicalism in that part of the world has taken a religious, rather than a nationalist or a Marxist, form. Nevertheless, there are many critical issues that American history teachers can-and should-address.

We can help our students understand how similarly significant events in the past have fundamentally altered the direction of American politics and the course of history. We can show our students how Americans reacted to earlier acts of calculated horror. We can explore America's complicated relationship with the nations of the Middle East and Near East. Most important of all, we can demonstrate why an understanding of history is essential for explaining the challenges we face today and as we chart our way into the future.

Learning From History

In ordinary times, many students question the value and relevance of history. After all, knowledge of history doesn't seem as practical or rewarding as knowledge of medicine or physics or economics. The normal justifications for studying history seem rather vague: to learn about the development of our society and our cultural heritage; to develop the skills characteristic of history as a discipline, such as the ability to undertake research, to read and interpret primary sources, to write clearly and analytically.

But in times of crisis and tragedy we are reminded of the more profound reasons why we study history. We study history:

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 underscore the need for historical perspective, and provide the history teacher with an opportunity to remind students of why historical knowledge is indispensable in navigating through present-day challenges and preparing for the future.

What, then, do the events of September 11, 2001 teach us about history?

To Expect the Unexpected.

No one predicted on September 10, 2001 that the next day would witness an unprecedented act of terrorism, just as no one in 1941 anticipated an attack on Pearl Harbor and no one in 1991 guessed that the Soviet Union would collapse. Similarly, no one guessed that the outbreak of world war in 1914 would result in the collapse of five empires or the Communist Revolution in Russia.

Today, no one can predict the outcome of the events that took place on September 11, 2001. But history does remind us that consequences of a terrorist attack or an assassination are rarely those that the perpetrators of violence have sought. Those who destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon hoped to demoralize the American population, disrupt our economy, and discredit the United States in the eyes of the world. Despite the destruction they wrought, it seems unimaginable that the terrorists will succeed in those goals.

To Remember that Nothing is Inevitable

What happened on September 11, 2001, was not preordained. The tragic events that occurred that day were the product of a train of individual events that might have turned out differently. Nothing better underscores the unpredictability of events better than the actions of the brave passengers on United Airlines Flight, who learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and sacrificed their own lives in order to prevent their airplane from striking Washington, D.C.

To Understand Why

In recent years, we have come to recognize that most acts of aggression and fanaticism in the contemporary world are rooted in a sense of historical grievance. In areas as diverse as the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe memories of the past are strong and fuel contemporary conflicts. History does not have the power to resolve those conflicts, but it can help us understand why antagonisms are so deeply rooted.

To Prevent History from Repeating Itself

Over time, we will understand why the intelligence apparatus failed to uncover the terrorist plot and why our security systems failed to prevent the attacks. As we learn from past mistakes, we may be able to prevent similar acts of terror from recurring in the future.

To Remember

History is our collective memory. It is an indelible record of acts of bravery and of treachery, of leadership and of cowardice. We study history in order to keep these memories alive.

Page 2: Historical Background

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