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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

  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


Turning Points in History

These are a few of the dates that many would consider true historical turning points or watersheds. One question that students might discuss is whether September 11, 2001, will also stand out as another historical watershed, as a decisive moment when the fortunes of our nation took a sudden turn.

During the twentieth century, there were many moments when the direction of American politics and history's course fundamentally changed. The Stock Market Crash and the decade-long Depression that followed precipitated a fundamental political realignment and transformed government's role in the economy. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor not only led the United States to declare war on Japan, but it set in motion a train of events that fundamentally altered the role of women and the place of racial and ethnic minorities in American life.

Will September 11, 2001 be equally significant? One question that many policy makers and analysts are currently asking is whether this terrorist strike represents a trend toward attacks designed to maximize the number of innocent people killed. Another is whether this strike's success will inspire more frequent terrorist attacks. How might the events of September 11 alter U.S. foreign policy, geo-political relations, and well as individuals' daily lives?

Hollywood and History

The scenes were eerily familiar: skyscrapers imploding, debris falling, panic-stricken crowds fleeing, an urban landscape strewn with gray dust. They called to memory scenes from King Kong or Ghostbusters or Die Hard or Independence Day or Godzilla. It had the look of Hollywood special effects. Except now the scenes were real.

The images in films help to shape the way we see the world. The science fiction films of the 1950s, with their depiction of alien attacks against the United States, helped encourage the spread of a paranoid style: a tendency to see conspiracies as the driving force behind political developments.

In the movies, scenes of urban destruction have served as metaphors for forces that the public feared. Godzilla gave expression to Japanese fears of nuclear weapons. Invasion of the Body Snatchers gave voice to public fears of communist subversion and mind control.

In their attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, terrorists drew upon cinematic images in an attempt to demonstrate their power and strike fear in the American population. By attacking key symbols of American economic and military might, they sought to generate a sense of American vulnerability and helplessness.

Students may find it helpful to discuss how Hollywood films have helped to shape the way that we view the world and encourage us to view events in cinematic terms. Among the questions that might be addressed in the classroom:

Films that deal with terrorism include:

The Siege (1998)

Children in War (1999)
Emmy award winning study of the impact of terrorism on children filmed in Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.

Useful online articles include:

Attacks Compared to Hollywood Terror Films

Fighting Terrorism, Hollywood Style

Taking the Pearl Harbor Analogy Seriously

Just before 7:55 a.m., Sunday, December 7, 1941, the first Japanese airplane dropped its bombs. Fifty dive bombers, fifty high-level bombers, and fifty fighters took part in the first wave of the attack. A second air attack followed at 9:00 a.m. By 9:45 a.m., the battle was over. Eighteen American warships, including seven battleships, were destroyed or sunk. Of approximately 400 American airplanes, the Japanese attack had destroyed 188 and damaged another 159. Altogether, 2,403 Americans were killed or fatally wounded.

Almost immediately after the attack of September 11th, Americans were struck by the parallels with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted American entry into World War II. Not since December 7, 1941, had the United States sustained such a deadly attack on its own soil.

There are, indeed, similarities between the Japanese raid 60 years ago and the destruction that struck the United States on September 11th. Both attacks came by surprise. Both exposed breakdowns in American intelligence and security. Both attacks were carefully planned and coordinated and involved a high level of technological expertise. Both attacks were devastatingly effective.

Yet there are also sharp differences between the events of September 11th and those that took place six decades earlier. The Japanese attack targeted military forces, not civilians. There was no doubt about the aggressor's identity or where its army could be found.

Apart from exploring the similarities and differences between the American reaction to the terrorist and the Japanese attack, it would be helpful for students to examine the U.S. reaction to the strike on Pearl Harbor. By exploring why the United States was unprepared for the attack our Pacific fleet in 1941, we might better understand why the United States failed to heed the warnings of anti-terrorism experts and military planners about the possibility of a massive strike against domestic targets.

In 1941, government officials were convinced that Japan was incapable of successfully attacking Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt was convinced that stationing a fleet in Hawaii would discourage the Japanese government from acts of aggression in the Pacific. In retrospect, the United States had some warnings about Japanese intentions. But it was so overwhelmed by contradictory pieces of information that it was unable to act in a timely way upon those warnings.

Some relevant documents are available on the Internet. A Congressional report on the attack on Pearl Harbor can be found at :


Assessing Historical Analogies

The events of September 11th do not have precise historical precedents. As Elisabeth I. Perry has emphasized on H-SHGAPE, there is nothing in U.S. history on the scale of what we witnessed. Nevertheless, many people have looked to the past for valuable lessons. Many participants on the H-Net lists have asked whether there are any events in American history that can in any way shed light on the attack. Apart from the attack on Pearl Harbor, H-Net lists have examined the strength and weaknesses of a number of other possible historical analogies:

· Pre-Revolutionary Resistance to British Authority

On H-SHEAR, Peter Gow explains how he has used the example of pre-Revolution Massachuetts to engage the imagination of his 10th grade U.S. history students. He describes bands of armed citizens who intimidate government agents; patriots who plot violence, stockpile weapons, and use a network of communication to spread stories of government plots to strip people of their rights; and soldiers inexperienced in crowd control who open fire on protestors.

Jack Rakove and J.L. Bell have explored the limitation of the analogy with the Sons of Liberty, noting that while they were willing to use the threat of violence to further their political goals, in other respects the parallel quickly breaks down. Bell stresses that the Sons of Liberty did not kill a single British loyalist in the ten years of turmoil preceding the Revolution, even though six protestors were killed, and that their protests and acts of intimidation were carefully targeted at royal officials and their leading supporters.

· The Barbary Pirates

Also on H-SHEAR, Richard B. Bernstein, among others, has explored an early moment of crisis between the United States and a small portion of the Muslim world. A major issue of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was how to force the Barbary states of North Africa to desist from seizing European or American ships and holding European or American nationals as hostages for ransom. Some countries struck deals with the North African states to leave their ships alone by agreeing to pay tribute, but the United States in the Jeffersonian era attempted to end this practice.

For further information on U.S.-Muslim relations in the era of the early republic, see Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 Oxford University Press, 1995; reprint, University of Chicago Press, 2001).

· John Brown and violent resistance to slavery

On H-CIVWAR, Michael Ross and Mark Fernandez examine America's holy warrior John Brown and his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Paul Finkelman argues that this example illustrates how difficult it is to draw analogies over time. He underscores the significant difference between those, like Brown, who were seeking to stimulate social change in their own country, even through violence, and those who attack another country. He notes that Brown's earlier killings at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, involved individuals that Brown regarded as legitimate combatants, some of whom had been involved in violence themselves, and others who had threatened to kill
Brown and his family, adding that Brown did not kill any of the women and young children at Pottawatomie. Finkelman also note that some of Brown's men at Harpers Ferry were fugitive slaves and free blacks trying to rescue their loved ones from bondage. And finally, unlike Bin Laden, Brown did not kill for its own sake at Harpers Ferry. Although he could have destroyed the town with the armory's powder, he did not.

H-SHGAPE has examined several post-Civil War analogies, including:

· Late 19th and early 20th century labor violence, including the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886 and the Los Angeles Times building bombing of 1910.
· The sinking of the battleship Maine
· The failed 11-month pursuit of Pancho Villa and the way that it poisoned U.S.-Mexican relations

Particular attention focused on the World War I era anarchist bombings, including the 1916 San Francisco Preparedness Day bombing the bombing of the San Francisco Preparedness Day parade on July 22, 1916; the 36 bombs that were mailed shortly before May 1, 1919; the eight bombs in as many cities on June 2, 1919; and the Wall Street bomb of September 16, 1920.

Diane M.T. North pointed to a sensational 1915 case in which the German Consul General at San Francisco, Franz von Bopp, his military attaché, Lt. Wilheim von Bricken, the vice-consul, Eckhard von Schack, and several other employees of the German Consulate wereaccused of planning to blow up ships, bridges, trains, and munitions plants in the U.S. and Canada, and were sentenced to prison in 1917.

Beverly Gage has written about the September 16, 1920 Wall Street bombing, which left 40 people dead and was the worst terrorist act in New York City prior to the September 11th attacks. Like the attacks on the World Trade Center, it appeared to be purely symbolic, designed to kill as many innocent people as possible.

Robert W. Cherney and Richard Spence examine the involvement of Kurt Albert Jahnke, a German saboteur in the U.S. and Mexico during WWI who became a British double agent or simply an agent-for-hire in the Preparedness Day and Mare Island (amd Tacoma) explosions on the West Coast and may have been involved in the Wall Street bombing.

On the pursuit of Pancho Villa, see Donald R. Shaffer, "The Osama bin Laden of 1916," History News Service.

For the 1920 bombing, see Beverly Gage, "The First Wall Street Bomb," History New Service

Page 4: The Concept of Tragedy

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