Magazine article Radical Teacher

Whose Terrorism? A Classroom Activity Enlists Students in Defining Terrorism and Then Applying Their Definitions to World Events

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Whose Terrorism? A Classroom Activity Enlists Students in Defining Terrorism and Then Applying Their Definitions to World Events

Article excerpt

This article first appeared in "War, Terrorism, and Our Classrooms, "a special issue of Rethinking Schools magazine, Winter 2001-2002. We are grateful to Rethinking Schools for permission to reprint this article. To subscribe to Rethinking Schools go to To access the full special issue, War, Terrorism and Our Classroom, visit Rethinking Schools online at:

Shortly after the horrific September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush announced these as acts of war, and proclaimed a "war on terrorism." But what exactly was to be the target of this war? What precisely did the President mean by terrorism? Despite uttering the words "terror," "terrorist," or "terrorism" 32 times in his September 20 speech to the nation, he never once defined terrorism.

Teachers need to engage our students in a deep critical reading of terms--such as "terrorism," "freedom," "patriotism," and "our way of life"--that evoke vivid images but can be used for ambiguous ends.


I wanted to design a lesson that would get students to surface the definitions of terrorism that they carry around--albeit most likely unconsciously. And I wanted them to apply their definitions to a number of episodes, historical, and contemporary that involved some kind of violence or destruction. I didn't know for certain, but my hunch was that as students applied definitions consistently they might be able to call into question the "We're Good/They're Bad" dichotomies that have become even more pronounced on the political landscape.

I wrote up several "What is Terrorism?" scenarios, but instead of using the actual names of countries involved, I substituted Country A, Country B, etc. Given the widespread conflation of patriotism with support for U.S. government policies, I had no confidence that students would be able to label an action taken by their government as "terrorism" unless I attached pseudonyms to each country.

In the following scenario I used the example of U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. Country A is the United States, B is Nicaragua, and the country next door is Honduras:

   The government of Country A is
   very unhappy with the government
   of Country B, whose leaders came to
   power in a revolution that threw out
   the former Country B dictator.
   Country A decides to do everything
   in its power to overthrow the new
   leaders of Country B. It begins funding
   a guerrilla army that attacks
   Country B from another country
   next door. Country A also builds
   army bases in the next door country
   and allows the guerrilla army to use
   its bases. Country A supplies almost
   all of the weapons and supplies of
   the guerrilla army fighting Country
   B. The guerrillas generally try to
   avoid fighting Country B's army.
   Instead, they attack clinics, schools,
   cooperative farms. Sometimes they
   mine the roads. Many, many civilians
   are killed and maimed by the
   Country A-supported guerrillas.
   Consistently, the guerrillas raid
   Country B and then retreat into the
   country next door where Country A
   has military bases."

   Question: 1. Which, if any, of
   these activities should be considered
   "terrorism" according to
   your definition? 2. Who are the
   "terrorists"? 3. What more would
   you need to know to be more sure
   of your answer?

I knew that in such compressed scenarios lots of important details would be missing; hence, I included question number three to invite students to consider other details that might influence their decisions.

Other scenarios included Israeli soldiers taunting and shooting children in Palestinian refugee camps, with the assistance of U.S. military aid; Indian farmers burning Monsanto-supplied, genetically-modified cotton crops and threatening to destroy Monsanto offices; the 1998 U. …

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