Teaching the death of Bin Laden

At Stuyvesant High, a few blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, AP Government teacher Matt Polazzo set aside a lesson on Nigerian politics to talk with his students about the death of Osama Bin Laden in a U.S. raid, reports the New York Times.

Mr. Polazzo, 35, was teaching at the school on Sept. 11, 2001, just a few blocks from ground zero. He witnessed the collapse of the first tower from a footbridge next to the school, and watched people leap from the second tower while waiting for the signal to evacuate from the school’s lobby.

His seniors had been in third grade at the time.

Sam Furnival, 17, had stayed up all night watching Al Jazeera English. He argued that the significance of the killing should not be underestimated. “After expending a trillion dollars and thousands of lives and 10 years, we were unable to catch one fighter of God who they said was protected by God from the imperial war machine,” he said, explaining the jihadist mindset. “The fact that Bin Laden is now dead debunks some of these claims.”

Mr. Polazzo asked another question. Do they think it would have been better to capture Bin Laden alive?

“That is what we should have strived to do,” said Chester Dubov, 18. “If nothing else, it would have been an excellent opportunity to give him due process of the law, and it would have been an opportunity to regain some of our moral standing.”

Most students disapproved of the wild celebrations of Bin Laden’s death.  But one boy argued that Americans shouldn’t worry about provoking the terrorists.

Besides, he added, “a lot of drunken George Washington University students shouting U.S.A.” — referring to one scene on Sunday night outside the White House — “is not going to inspire global jihad any more than there is currently.”

. . . Sam continued, “There are occasions on which it is appropriate to celebrate in the street, holding a Bud and waving an American flag, and presumably many of these occasions involve victory in battle.”

Killing a chief terrorist may be the closest we get to victory in a murky war on terror, the teacher suggested.

The New York Times has teaching tips, which include asking students to analyze why the Times told staffers not to write “Mr. Bin Laden” in stories on the terror leader’s death. Historic figures lose their “Mr.” when they die, according to the newspaper’s style guide. But this may set a speed record.

California students also were disturbed by the celebration of Bin Laden’s death, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    As I recently said in an informal debate about the celebrations: when we win a military victory, there are celebrations, and then afterwards time for thoughtful reflection and remorse for both our own dead and perhaps the enemy dead as well.

    I don’t see how this is different. Pass me a brew, for the enemy of the people is dead. We can regret our humanity tomorrow.

    As for discussing this in a class — well, sure, why not? Critical thinking (ugh — I hate that phrase) isn’t possible if you don’t have something to critically think about.

  2. SuperSub says:

    The way I see it, Bin Laden not only threatened every American citizen but had the means to carry out his threats. The only differences that separated me and my family from the victims of 9/11 was the capriciousness of fate and 300 miles…the victims were just trying to earn a living and support themselves and their families just as I do. I can’t even imagine how much more strongly native NYC’ers must feel about this.

    So with that in mind, I am greatly satisfied with the news, and do not in any way begrudge others the opportunity to celebrate it. Some people deserve to die for their crimes, even if it is a violent death. Bin Laden was one of them.

    As for using it for lessons, I say no unless the class displays a high level of maturity and sophistication. Otherwise it will just devolve into an immature debate that lacks the perspective that living through and remembering 9/11 provides… and misses the finer points of legal and political consequences of the decisions made.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dissing the celebrations is a way to make oneself seem mature, thoughtful and superior.

  4. Aubrey, totally agree 🙂

    I’m laid up with a skiing injury and am out for the rest of the school year–so I didn’t get to have these types of conversations with my students. I did, however, get my American flag and my crutches and slowly, painfully make my way to the front of the house to display that flag. My house wasn’t the only one on my street so adorned.

  5. When millions in the Muslim world celebrated in the streets and handed out candy when the Twin Towers fell, the last thing we should worry about is hurting their feelings.  Dissing people who celebrate the death of the monster who masterminded it isn’t just moral posturing, it’s moral idiocy.

  6. About 10 students asked me if I had heard the news. They were excited about it. They said his name and laughed, mostly because the name was new to them and it was hard to say.

    The buzz was in the air and they were excited because they got the sense it was a very big deal.

    Only one student asked me a question about his death other than if I had heard about it. He asked me if I was glad.

    Ten years ago when we got the news about the Twin Towers, I wrote September 11 on the chalkboard and told my students that today might seem like a normal day to them, but today’s date would be something they’d never forget.

    The next day I videotaped students and asked them what they thought would happen next. Would there be a war or something? Most said no, that we’re too smart for that.

    Most students and adults, the video shows, were in a strange state of shock. They knew something very big had happened but they didn’t know how they should feel or what they should say. To stay on the safe side, most were quiet and withdrawn or pretended that nothing at all had happened. When it came up, many nervously changed the subject.

    My brother, who lived and worked very close to ground zero, had a different experience, but in some ways, it seemed similar. People were abnormally quiet because they didn’t know what to say.

    I didn’t hear students talk about Osama Bin Laden the next day.

    I don’t know. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for them to not know that such evil walked the earth?

  7. SuperSub says:

    Robert –
    Its not. As a culture we have largely pacified ourselves to the point where many cannot look at a black and white issue and take a stance with confidence. I remember the day after 9/11 and hearing debates (DEBATES!?!?!?!?!) about whether Al Queda’s attack was justified.
    In our search to accept all we have lost our ability to recognize such evil. I dare say what could happen if a modern Hitler were able to rise to political office here in the US.

  8. More moral idiocy:  the same people who will equivocate about the morality of 9/11 will deny that you have any right to use deadly force to protect yourself against e.g. robbery or assault.