Twelve teenagers born after 9/11 told us what they have learned about the event and its aftermath — and what has been left out.
By Damien Cave and Yousur Al-Hlou
Sept. 10, 2021
For those born after Sept. 11, 2001, there are no memories of that dark day to shape their views. There is only education — formal, and informal.
With the terrorist attack and the wars that followed having entered the realm of history, we sought to understand how these events are being taught. What is stressed? What is overlooked?
We examined textbooks from all over and talked with educators. But mostly we wanted to hear directly from young people, and so we interviewed students born after the attacks in 12 countries.
Their voices offered only a hint of the diversity of instruction on Sept. 11 worldwide, but their impressions and experiences were striking.
From Moscow to Manhattan, from Karachi to Caracas, from Berlin to Baghdad, students have come away with very different perspectives on terrorism, Islam, war and American power.
If there is a consensus, it can be found in what students told us their education has been missing: depth.
They want to know more.
What did you learn about 9/11 in school?
The lessons taught about 9/11 reflect national agendas — if it is taught at all.
I’m actually certain we’ve never studied it.>I’m actually certain we’ve never studied it.Polina Russia
These types of discussions don’t take place in our schools.>These types of discussions don’t take place in our schools.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
In my primary school, they briefly mentioned it.>In my primary school, they briefly mentioned it.Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
The teacher had slides of the planes hitting the twin towers.>The teacher had slides of the planes hitting the twin towers.Lucas Villar Brazil
We were supposed to watch a documentary about 9/11>We were supposed to watch a documentary about 9/11Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
in high school, but in the end they never played it.>in high school, but in the end they never played it.Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
We talked about 9/11 being the first event that>We talked about 9/11 being the first event thatNoémi Grette France
showed that terrorism existed, and that it was>showed that terrorism existed, and that it wasNoémi Grette France
a threat to the whole world.>a threat to the whole world.Noémi Grette France
It was taught separately as an example>It was taught separately as an exampleKim Donghyeon South Korea
of international conflict post-globalization.>of international conflict post-globalization.Kim Donghyeon South Korea
While talking to my history professor,>While talking to my history professor,Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
he told me it happened to threaten the U.S.>he told me it happened to threaten the U.S.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
And that’s what resulted in the U.S. occupying Iraq.>And that’s what resulted in the U.S. occupying Iraq.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
In seventh grade, we were given a project>In seventh grade, we were given a projectKaren Zhang United States
to interview a family member who was personally>to interview a family member who was personallyKaren Zhang United States
affected by 9/11.>affected by 9/11.Karen Zhang United States
That’s when I started to have a lot deeper connection>That’s when I started to have a lot deeper connectionKaren Zhang United States
to the event.>to the event.Karen Zhang United States
Schools around the world vary widely in their approach to teaching 9/11, if they teach it at all.
Biz Herman, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, has collected 850 textbooks from 90 countries. We worked with Ms. Herman to examine many of the textbooks commonly used by middle and high school students and found that Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, Syria and Mozambique are a few of the countries that do not mention the attack.
In New York and elsewhere in the United States, the Sept. 11 curriculum has been overtly personal and emotional. Students have been asked by their teachers to explore the experiences of their own families.
But at a remove from the bloodshed, and with attitudes of varying warmth toward the U.S., other countries handle the subject with their own nationalistic tilt.
In England, descriptions of the attack appear in one popular textbook in a section titled “Terrorist Groups in Action,” which also explores how the British government handled the Irish Republican Army. Spanish, French and Russian textbooks discuss Sept. 11 alongside terrorist attacks that struck their own citizens.
Textbooks from (clockwise from top left) Germany, Russia, South Africa, the U.S., Sweden and South Korea. Source: Biz Herman, University of California, Berkeley
Textbooks from (clockwise from top left) Germany, Russia, South Korea, the U.S., Sweden and South Africa. Source: Biz Herman, University of California, Berkeley
But some countries teach students that the events of that day offer a lesson, or perhaps a warning, for the world’s powers.
South Korean and Indian students learn that the strikes on the World Trade Center in New York and on Washington were a consequence of globalization. A Pakistani textbook describes the attack, which left almost 3,000 dead, as an “incident,” and dwells on the risks that come from American hegemony.
Striking an even sharper note, a textbook of Modern and Contemporary World History from China includes a photo of the twin towers in flames near a section on geopolitics. “No one power can dominate the world on its own,” it says.
“What are textbooks and what are they for?” Ms. Herman asks. “It would seem simple: that it’s for educating kids. But it’s actually for setting national agendas, for sharing a particular narrative. And sometimes it’s for educating kids.”
How did you first learn about 9/11?
Horrific images endure. But what came next is often poorly explained.
I don’t remember precisely how old I was,>I don’t remember precisely how old I was,Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
but I remember I saw it on a news report.>but I remember I saw it on a news report.Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
Buildings being bombed, like the terrorist attacks>Buildings being bombed, like the terrorist attacksXolisa Nohenda South Africa
and stuff like that. I never — I was feeling really astonished.>and stuff like that. I never — I was feeling really astonished.Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
It was a right-wing Pakistani newspaper>It was a right-wing Pakistani newspaperFaisal Rehman Pakistan
that came to our house regularly.>that came to our house regularly.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
The headline was,>The headline was,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
“After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. downfall has begun.”>“After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. downfall has begun.”Faisal Rehman Pakistan
It was a documentary on television.>It was a documentary on television.Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
I felt sad>I felt sadAriadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
hearing from so many people who had seen their colleagues die>hearing from so many people who had seen their colleagues dieAriadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
because they could not get out in time.>because they could not get out in time.Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
I was like, watching true crime videos excessively>I was like, watching true crime videos excessivelyPolina Russia
on YouTube when I saw photos and videos of people>on YouTube when I saw photos and videos of peoplePolina Russia
jumping out.>jumping out.Polina Russia
I think that’s why there are conspiracy theories>I think that’s why there are conspiracy theoriesNoémi Grette France
around this.>around this.Noémi Grette France
It’s because it’s so shocking.>It’s because it’s so shocking.Noémi Grette France
It’s something that is so threatening and frightening>It’s something that is so threatening and frighteningNoémi Grette France
that when you see it, you just can’t believe it happened.>that when you see it, you just can’t believe it happened.Noémi Grette France
Why was it so easy to hijack four planes?>Why was it so easy to hijack four planes?Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
How did they pass security checks?>How did they pass security checks?Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
Did they have prior intelligence?>Did they have prior intelligence?Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
How did such a big terror incident>How did such a big terror incidentFaisal Rehman Pakistan
take place in such a safe country?>take place in such a safe country?Faisal Rehman Pakistan
I still don’t have the answer for that.>I still don’t have the answer for that.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
Many people born after Sept. 11 learn about that day at a young age, but how it happens varies. Some see documentaries about the attack, but others stumble across it on YouTube or hear a chance remark that sets them on a path to learn more.
Many of the students we interviewed said they had first heard 9/11 referred to obliquely, as if the adults talking had forgotten that they were not alive when the attack happened. When asked, the adults would give them a basic rundown of the facts — the hijacked planes, the toppled buildings, the number killed — without much context.
What they remember are the images.
“When you see the archival images, you’re like: How is this possible?” said Noémi Grette, 18, a recent high school graduate from Bordeaux in France.
But the photos and video leave so much unanswered, say young people like Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas, 16, a 10th grader in Ciudad Los Teques, Venezuela.
“The questions that I have are: First, why was it so easy for the Taliban to hijack four airplanes from the U.S.?” she said, mixing up the Taliban with their allies in Al Qaeda. “And the other question that I have is: Why did that war really start between the U.S. and Afghanistan?”
What impact did 9/11 have on your world?
For some teenagers, the American response to 9/11 matters as much as the attacks
It had such a big impact on the United States,>It had such a big impact on the United States,Karen Zhang United States
and I feel like it’s an event that you can’t really>and I feel like it’s an event that you can’t reallyKaren Zhang United States
accept just happened, since it was clearly>accept just happened, since it was clearlyKaren Zhang United States
purposefully done. It wasn’t an accident.>purposefully done. It wasn’t an accident.Karen Zhang United States
It was a moment where everyone realized>It was a moment where everyone realizedJelena Marie Bielke Germany
that there are, of course, bad people>that there are, of course, bad peopleJelena Marie Bielke Germany
and that we are not as safe as we thought we were.>and that we are not as safe as we thought we were.Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
The world didn’t become a better place.>The world didn’t become a better place.Lucas Villar Brazil
It just got worse.>It just got worse.Lucas Villar Brazil
When the war in Afghanistan started,>When the war in Afghanistan started,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
thousands of people were forced to migrate toward Pakistan.>thousands of people were forced to migrate toward Pakistan.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
We had to leave our ancestral area, our home,>We had to leave our ancestral area, our home,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
our land and our property, and we had to migrate>our land and our property, and we had to migrateFaisal Rehman Pakistan
to the city.>to the city.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
It has sparked national conflicts between people.>It has sparked national conflicts between people.Polina Russia
I don’t mean, like, the war itself,>I don’t mean, like, the war itself,Polina Russia
but just the hatred.>but just the hatred.Polina Russia
Because people are frightened of terrorist attacks,>Because people are frightened of terrorist attacks,Noémi Grette France
they tend to stigmatize more Muslim people.>they tend to stigmatize more Muslim people.Noémi Grette France
I think a lot of people, when they think of terrorism,>I think a lot of people, when they think of terrorism,Felix Tonkin Australia
they think of Islamic terrorism.>they think of Islamic terrorism.Felix Tonkin Australia
It’s really sort of painted a sort of a boogeyman, really,>It’s really sort of painted a sort of a boogeyman, really,Felix Tonkin Australia
that a lot of people like to look at.>that a lot of people like to look at.Felix Tonkin Australia
When Saddam Hussein fell, the state, and its security institutions, fell.>When Saddam Hussein fell, the state, and its security institutions, fell.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
And that motivated extremists to roam the streets,>And that motivated extremists to roam the streets,Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
and to threaten people and kill them.>and to threaten people and kill them.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
The death of my father, and many innocent civilians,>The death of my father, and many innocent civilians,Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
is directly tied to the Iraq war.>is directly tied to the Iraq war.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
When the post-9/11 generation assesses the impact of the attack on their lives, they often point to what they can see: the long waits to get through airport security, the concrete bollards at the front of public squares to block a potential truck bomb.
But for many students, the lines between that day and the wars that followed are something of a blur, like a thunderstorm with clouds that have merged.
The ramifications can be deeply personal.
Faisal Rehman, 18, said that America’s invasion of Afghanistan led Taliban fighters to safe houses in the border region of Pakistan where his family lived, forcing them to leave for Karachi. Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi, an 18-year-old high school senior in Baghdad, said that if not for the events of Sept. 11, “Saddam Hussein would have still been among us.”
“Regime change” ended dictatorship, he noted, but it also produced more terrorism inside Iraq. His father was shot and killed in 2005 when Mujtaba was just a toddler.
“He was washing his car, which was a big car,” he said. “I was standing next to him.”
For others, like Dorea Nengese, 18, who recently graduated from an East London high school filled with students whose families migrated from Afghanistan, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, Sept. 11 will be forever remembered as a spark for anti-Islamic prejudice and intense debates about whose narratives should be given prominence.
Why, she asked, are students “expected to know everything about America” without learning about how global affairs are viewed by people from other countries?
What did these events teach you about America?
Students aware of 9/11 and what followed are often deeply skeptical of American motives.
The response after 9/11 told me about the U.S.>The response after 9/11 told me about the U.S.Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
that they kind of want justice,>that they kind of want justice,Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
but in a really weird way, kind of,>but in a really weird way, kind of,Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
because it’s not really justice to bomb a country.>because it’s not really justice to bomb a country.Jelena Marie Bielke Germany
Public opinion here is that after 9/11,>Public opinion here is that after 9/11,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
America launched a war against the Taliban>America launched a war against the TalibanFaisal Rehman Pakistan
and terrorists as cover for the occupation of Afghanistan.>and terrorists as cover for the occupation of Afghanistan.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
I really vividly remember I think it was Bush —>I really vividly remember I think it was Bush —Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
I think it was that president —>I think it was that president —Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
him doing all these speeches and saying>him doing all these speeches and sayingDorea Nengese United Kingdom
very emotive kind of slogans like,>very emotive kind of slogans like,Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
“You’re with us or against us.”>“You’re with us or against us.”Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
And the whole war on terror.>And the whole war on terror.Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
As if 9/11 justified everything else that happened.>As if 9/11 justified everything else that happened.Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
Perhaps 9/11 was the perfect pretext for>Perhaps 9/11 was the perfect pretext forMujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
George W. Bush to accomplish two goals at once:>George W. Bush to accomplish two goals at once:Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
He brought down the Taliban in Afghanistan>He brought down the Taliban in AfghanistanMujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
and then went to Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein.>and then went to Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
My history teacher always taught us that>My history teacher always taught us thatNoémi Grette France
America has this “peace guard” role>America has this “peace guard” roleNoémi Grette France
in the world.>in the world.Noémi Grette France
I think that the U.S. had no choice but to retaliate>I think that the U.S. had no choice but to retaliateKim Donghyeon South Korea
because the attack took such a huge toll>because the attack took such a huge tollKim Donghyeon South Korea
on its people.>on its people.Kim Donghyeon South Korea
But I also think the U.S. was too aggressive>But I also think the U.S. was too aggressiveKim Donghyeon South Korea
during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.>during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.Kim Donghyeon South Korea
For many Americans, remembering Sept. 11 means grappling with the legacy of trauma. With a more international perspective, young people elsewhere often find themselves asking how such a powerful country could be so vulnerable — and what lay at the root of its response at home and around the world.
Some students said American power should still be seen as a force for good. Xolisa Nohenda, 17, a 12th grader in Johannesburg, South Africa, said most of her peers believed that the U.S. “plays a big role in defending people.”
But for many, it has become common to question American motives.
In almost any lesson that touches on the United States, textbooks from many countries emphasize American military might. Some also suggest that the U.S. attacked Afghanistan and Iraq to obtain oil or other natural resources.
Even teenagers who were not taught from those texts seem to have absorbed a sense of deep skepticism.
“I don’t know a lot about the war between Iraq and the U.S. but I do know that they, I think, fought about oil, and there was a lot of money involved,” said Jelena Marie Bielke, 16, a high school junior in Berlin. “And the U.S. wanted to get the oil.”
The American response to Sept. 11, she said, showed that the Americans “kind of want justice, but in a really weird way — because it’s not really justice to bomb a country.”
What’s gone wrong with 9/11 education?
Students blame outdated curricula, fear and political agendas for ignoring 9/11 in schools.
Our teachers were anticipating that we’d known about 9/11,>Our teachers were anticipating that we’d known about 9/11,Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
because America — it’s like, how could>because America — it’s like, how couldDorea Nengese United Kingdom
you not know?>you not know?Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
There’s a general consensus that people know>There’s a general consensus that people knowKaren Zhang United States
what the event was, especially because>what the event was, especially becauseKaren Zhang United States
we live in New York City and many of our parents>we live in New York City and many of our parentsKaren Zhang United States
had already lived through it.>had already lived through it.Karen Zhang United States
We want to focus more on our country’s history,>We want to focus more on our country’s history,Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
on our continent’s history, and it’s a lot.>on our continent’s history, and it’s a lot.Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
They didn’t want to go into the topic because>They didn’t want to go into the topic becauseAriadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
they said that it was too complicated to explain to us.>they said that it was too complicated to explain to us.Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
I remember asking my teacher,>I remember asking my teacher,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
“Sir, I read about 9/11 in the newspaper —>“Sir, I read about 9/11 in the newspaper —Faisal Rehman Pakistan
can you tell me more about it?”>can you tell me more about it?”Faisal Rehman Pakistan
He said firmly,>He said firmly,Faisal Rehman Pakistan
“Son, these wars are political.>“Son, these wars are political.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
We don’t learn such things in school.”>We don’t learn such things in school.”Faisal Rehman Pakistan
For a lot of people who might be teaching 9/11,>For a lot of people who might be teaching 9/11,Felix Tonkin Australia
they don’t really view it as history.>they don’t really view it as history.Felix Tonkin Australia
They view it as a contemporary event>They view it as a contemporary eventFelix Tonkin Australia
that happened in their lifetime.>that happened in their lifetime.Felix Tonkin Australia
They suffered the consequences of 9/11.>They suffered the consequences of 9/11.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
When something hurts you,>When something hurts you,Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
or crushes you from the inside,>or crushes you from the inside,Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
then of course you don’t talk about it.>then of course you don’t talk about it.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
We study wars. What is not scary>We study wars. What is not scaryPolina Russia
about a war that is very scary about>about a war that is very scary aboutPolina Russia
a terrorist attack that they won’t talk about?>a terrorist attack that they won’t talk about?Polina Russia
And sort of, like, I think it’s a very>And sort of, like, I think it’s a veryPolina Russia
controversial question to be honest.>controversial question to be honest.Polina Russia
Many of the students we interviewed offered sharp insights on why their elders do not teach about Sept. 11 with more context and rigor. Some said schools are always slow to adapt, sticking with outdated textbooks that can take years to update.
“I think it’s time for us to change this educational system and, I don’t know, try to focus on something more forward looking,” said Lucas Villar, 18, a high school senior in Rio de Janeiro.
Other students blamed politics and discomfort with trauma.
“I think sometimes some things are not talked about, because maybe the government failed to control it,” said Polina, 19, a university student in Russia, who asked that her surname not be used to protect her privacy and avoid trouble with the authorities.
“Like, I don’t want to get political, but I really do think that some things are not included just because it might sabotage the general picture of the country. Maybe kids would not feel safe in their country, or it might trigger some sort of thought, some negative thinking about their safety, and what they have to go through. Maybe some phobias.”
Felix Tonkin, 17, a 12th grader in Sydney, said some countries (including Australia) may be hindered by a sense of shame about mistakes they made in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“That’s a hard thing to teach, absolutely,” he said. “But I think it’s an important thing to teach as well.”
In Karachi, Mr. Rehman said he had once asked his teacher to explain and got this reply: “Son, these wars are political. We don’t learn such things in school. You can learn about them later in life.”
What grade would you give your education?
Students want a more nuanced, contemporary and international education.
A D-plus — because I think that they’ve>A D-plus — because I think that they’veFelix Tonkin Australia
touched on it briefly, they mentioned it.>touched on it briefly, they mentioned it.Felix Tonkin Australia
But I think that they could go a lot deeper>But I think that they could go a lot deeperFelix Tonkin Australia
and I think there’s a lot more that they could teach us.>and I think there’s a lot more that they could teach us.Felix Tonkin Australia
I would give it a D.>I would give it a D.Faisal Rehman Pakistan
I’m looking at a B-minus here.>I’m looking at a B-minus here.Xolisa Nohenda South Africa
An F.>An F.Polina Russia
I don’t remember discussing it in class ever.>I don’t remember discussing it in class ever.Polina Russia
I give them 2 out of 10.>I give them 2 out of 10.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
A 2.5.>A 2.5.Lucas Villar Brazil
I’d give them 50 points out of 100.>I’d give them 50 points out of 100.Kim Donghyeon South Korea
I would give them a 3 out of 20.>I would give them a 3 out of 20.Ariadna Clareth Sánchez Rojas Venezuela
Maybe a C or a D … plus!>Maybe a C or a D … plus!Noémi Grette France
I’d give them an A.>I’d give them an A.Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
It almost felt like a bit of a privilege to learn about>It almost felt like a bit of a privilege to learn aboutDorea Nengese United Kingdom
foreign countries and the history that happened>foreign countries and the history that happenedDorea Nengese United Kingdom
in other parts of the world.>in other parts of the world.Dorea Nengese United Kingdom
Iraqis have a big role in writing the history of these events.>Iraqis have a big role in writing the history of these events.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
They experienced many events that can be compared to 9/11 —>They experienced many events that can be compared to 9/11 —Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
it just happened in a different way.>it just happened in a different way.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
But Iraqis also survived war and destruction.>But Iraqis also survived war and destruction.Mujtaba Ali al-Saadi Iraq
I would try to explain in a better way why 9/11 happened.>I would try to explain in a better way why 9/11 happened.Lucas Villar Brazil
Because I think that for most of us —>Because I think that for most of us —Lucas Villar Brazil
it doesn’t make any sense.>it doesn’t make any sense.Lucas Villar Brazil
Across the board, students born soon after Sept. 11, 2001, told us they longed for their teachers and school systems to embark on a deeper dive into the subject, from the historical context leading up to the attack all the way through the long-term impact.
For many, 9/11 has come to symbolize one of the flaws of modern education: an unwillingness to look more closely at relatively recent events that shape the present.
“I feel lost, because sometimes I watch the news and I don’t understand anything that’s happening,” said Mr. Villar, in Brazil. “And I think the school could help me with that, having more classes about what’s going on now, and not just what happened 300 years ago.”
Several students also said they needed to know more about Sept. 11 because one day they may be called upon to explain the era of terror to their children.
“I feel like I do have responsibility to not only learn about just what happened, but I feel like also just the long lasting legacy of it, and just all the effects and aftermath,” said Karen Zhang, 17, a rising senior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
More specifically, she said that along with Sept. 11, “there should be a bit more of, I think, the history of the U.S. in the Middle East.”
Mr. al-Saadi, in Baghdad, said he could understand why so few teachers wanted to teach about 9/11. “When something hurts you, or crushes you from the inside, then of course you don’t talk about it,” he said.
And yet, he and many others argue, that trauma is exactly why the subject must be taught. To process the pain. To learn from the failures. To help the next generation do better than the last.
Lawrence O. Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in public health, added: “The president’s plan is bold, audacious and unprecedented. But I do think it’s entirely lawful. He’s on extremely strong legal ground.”The moves, which Mr. Biden said would cover 100 million people, are part of a broader White House effort to curb the pandemic, which began to spin out of control in July even as Mr. Biden […]