Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Are My Children Being Taught About Terrorism?

Yesterday, I was looking through the papers that my kids brought home from school (they're in 3rd grade). Among the papers was a series of definitions for the unit on health that they just completed (and got good grades in, I might add). The unit dealt with emergencies and included words like "emergency", "responsible adult", "shelter", and "natural disaster" (if I recall correctly). By and large, the choice of words and their respective definitions seemed fine, with one notable exception: The word "terrorism" was defined as someone "trying to cause a disaster".*

I'm not sure that I would necessarily agree with teaching about terrorism in a health class rather than as part of some kind of social studies curriculum, but that is a minor quibble. More important are the omissions and ambiguities included in the definition. As presented to the kids, the definition of "terrorism" does include an intent component but is wholly lacking in a a corresponding motive component (more on this below). Moreover, the use of the term "disaster" in the definition is, at best, only partially accurate but unclear and, at worst, wholly misleading. Only in fiction is the goal of the terrorist to cause an earthquake or drought. Real world terrorists seek to cause chaos, destruction, and death. Furthermore, I suspect that most terrorists would not view the harm caused to their victims as a "disaster" at all, but rather, as some form of glorious outcome. Finally, the definition does not make it clear that the terrorist committing the terrorism is bad.

I'm not sure that I can readily come up with an example of a terrorist action that was intended to cause some kind of harm that was not also endeavoring to seek some purpose or resolution. Terrorists don't fly planes into buildings just to make the buildings fall down and they don't blow themselves up in pizza parlors just to destroy a pizza parlor; instead, they do these things with the hope that their actions will lead to some political or military change or resolution. And I'm not sure that I can readily come up with an example of a terrorist action that was not also intended to cause injury or death (even eco-terrorists who spike trees do so with the thought that a logger who tries to cut a spiked tree could be injured thus making the logger less likely to cut the particular tree). I guess that if we want to include as terrorism efforts by animal rights activists to free lab test animals or throw paint on fur coats you could have an example of terrorism that doesn't seek to injure or kill, but those examples are quite a stretch and certainly not the incidents that most of us think about when we think about terrorism.

It seems though, that any discussion of the meaning of the word "terrorism" must include some discussion of what the terrorist hopes to achieve. Even if that discussion is only in the most generic of terms, there has to be an understanding that the terrorism has a motive for the terrorist act. And, part of this discussion, must make clear that terrorism is not an acceptable methodology for securing desired goals; children must be taught that terrorism is bad. Even if we only express this in terms of criminality, there must be a recognition and educational component that reinforces that terrorism is never acceptable. The definition given to my children fails in all respects.

Maybe third graders are too young to learn what terrorism really is, but in that case, it would be better not to discuss it at all rather than give them a definition that is so far off base and that will only serve to cause confusion. Maybe we'd be better off telling our kids that there are bad people in the world who, when they don't get their way, instead of throwing a toy across the room or hitting or screaming, do really, really bad things that are meant to hurt (or kill) many people. But to leave out of a definition of terrorism both the motive and the real intent seems to me to be yet another disservice that we do to our children. And to fail to make clear to them that terrorism and terrorists are bad leaves them open the suggestion that terrorism might, in some cases, be morally acceptable or even to view some terrorists as heroes rather than villains.

As long as we're engaged in a "war on terror" (or whatever new term may come to replace that), shouldn't we be honest (or at least honest-lite) with our kids? I'd rather that they understand that there are bad people who don't like America and what America stands for than think that there are simply some rogue idiots who want to cause earthquakes. I don't know how much we should be teaching our third graders about terrorism (or crime or war); but I don't think that we should sugarcoat things so much that they lose their meaning and potency.
If we're going to address difficult subjects with our children, whether it be terrorism or sexual education, we need to be sure that the information that we provide is accurate and not misleading.

*Note that, unfortunately, I can't find the paper that included the definition (my wife threw it away, not knowing that I had set it aside in order to write about it); thus, my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it does, I believe, fairly capture the flavor of the definition (and the definition did use the word "disaster").

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