I returned to college spring of 2002, six months after 9/11.
I considered the opportunity, at my age and with my background, a miracle. The honor and gratitude I felt fueled an almost maniacal effort to excel in every class. I had made it to, I thought, the bastion of free, critical, and investigative thought.
It wasn’t long before I found out differently, and one of the first indicators was how my professors and classmates used the words terrorist and terrorism as political labels and not as a critical determination of a person or group’s actions.
When I questioned this lack of discrimination in an introductory class on Islam the professor became nervous and refused to engage the discussion; I was told I needed to take other classes if I wanted to ask those questions.
But even more unsettling was the reaction by the other students in the class. Many of them became angry at the suggestion that our actions (the United States) also amounted to terrorism. They had little desire to have a critical discussion on what defined terrorism and even less willingness to allow a person’s or country’s actions—rather than ethnicity, religion, nationality—to determine how the word was applied. Instead they wanted to have their popular knowledge garnered from corporate news media, whether correct or not, reinforced and not challenged.
And ten years later, in a doctoral level research class, I found the same refusal by the professor and many of my classmates to question the official government line on topics related to 9/11 and who and what a terrorist was. In these cases those who had been taught to rely on critical thought were expected to accept government press releases as fact if they expected to be accepted in the academy.
To me the refusal to question our government’s actions, especially in areas that involve waging war and violence on other’s around the world, amounts to academic cowardice. And when this happens with the people who have the skills necessary to bring greater truth and clarity to these discussions, it can amount to complicity.
Glenn Greenwald’s article on the “terrorist label”: