On Sept. 11, 2001, today's high school students were ages 6 to 9 — far too young to understand the momentous events that took place that day. In a few years, however, these youngsters will be able to vote or join the army. What do they really need to know now about 9/11 — and why?
The latter question — the why — is easy. Two wars that grew out of the events that day — rightly or wrongly — are still raging in Afghanistan and in Iraq, with the Afghan insurgency metastasizing into Pakistan. Even if the United States and its allies resolve these insurgencies successfully, there's every chance that Al Qaeda look-alikes will find safe haven in Somalia, Yemen or somewhere else.
Indeed, we hear too often about suicide-bombings in the Middle East, in South and Southeast Asia, in Europe or in Africa, sometimes occurring in luxury hotels or in Jewish outreach centers, or in buses and trains. And not infrequently, we hear about terrorist plots being thwarted here in the United States, where the perpetrators are not just foreign extremists, but native-born Americans who have been recruited into extremist groups. While these events are not all attributable to the same group, many appear to be tied to organizations that share similar ideologies.
Moreover, averting another catastrophic event — perhaps even more nightmarish than the one we experienced eight years ago, especially if the terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction — is the government's greatest responsibility. That's not a Democratic or Republican view; it's about everyone's view here.
As President Barack Obama put it in his speech in Cairo, which was addressed to the Muslim world: "Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale … . These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with."
But aside from the bald facts that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by 19 men — 15 Saudis, two Egyptians, one Lebanese and one from the United Arab Emirates — and planned by a troika consisting of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi heir to a construction fortune; Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor from a prominent family; and Khaled Sheik Muhammad, a Kuwaiti thug, what do students need to know about these individuals and the groups associated with them?
Students (and, perhaps, their teachers) might be tempted to conclude that America is the principal enemy, that Sept. 11 was simply the first shot in a long conflict, and that America is now at war with the Muslim world, but that would be wrong on all counts. In fact, the conflict we are in began as a war within Islam.
The objective, the terrorists tell us, is to "purify" the world of Islam. The main enemies are the Muslim governments that, in the view of these extremists, do not practice Islam the way these extremists imagine it was practiced in the seventh century, the founding era of Islam.
The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by a group associated with Zawahiri was part of this civil war within the Muslim world. Radical Islam was not born or cultivated in Afghanistan or Iraq, where U.S. soldiers are fighting, but in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whom we count among our friends.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri's "contribution" to radical Islamic thought was to see that in order to get at the "near enemy" (Muslim governments), they would have to target the "far enemy" (the United States). In fact, the radical Islamists find targets not just in New York City or Washington, D.C., but in London, Madrid, Mumbai, Jakarta and elsewhere. Ironically, it turns out that Muslims themselves are the most numerous victims of Muslim extremism.
In the long run, we may expect the Muslim world itself to tamp down extremism. Yet in the short term, America has no choice but to contain extremism as best it can in war, as well as in the battle for hearts and minds.
Alan Luxenberg teaches at two religious schools in suburban Philadelphia, and is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Wachman Center. He is the author of two books for middle- and high-schoolers: Radical Islam and The Palestine Mandate and the Creation of Israel.