The Trauma of Terrorism: Helping Children Cope. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)

By Berson, Ilene R.; Berson, Michael J. | Social Education, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Trauma of Terrorism: Helping Children Cope. (Teaching about Tragedy)(Cover Story)


Berson, Ilene R., Berson, Michael J., Social Education


SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, began for many as an ordinary Tuesday morning throughout the United States. In some parts of the country, students were in school, some adults were at work or engaged in their daily routines, and others were still in peaceful slumber, unaware of the horrific series of events about to unfold. At about 8:45 a.m., the tragic assault on the country began. Within moments, the nation became a collective witness to and victim of a violent atrocity.

Elie Wiesel has stated, "More than anything--more than hatred and torture-more than pain-do I fear the world's indifference." (1) The intensity of the response to this assault on the nation has awakened the compassion of our citizens. We have lived in a long period of peace, and this event has been a sudden jolt. The immediacy of the news accounts and images made everyone not only witnesses, but also participants in the tragedy. Unlike in times past, when travelers spread news of atrocities months after the event, firsthand knowledge of threat and potential for risk heightens the intensity of our response. Even those individuals who are far from the disaster sites cannot remain emotionally distant.

The terrifying aspect of this violence is the realization that we are not just bystanders to aggression but also the target of it. Violence is not a unique occurrence here, but mass destruction of human life still stirs fear and uneasiness across America. Because mass violence often appears to happen at a safe distance, we have remained detached from the reality that civilians are the sometimes accidental and often intentional victims of attacks. In recent conflicts, civilians account for almost 75 percent of resulting deaths. (2) Terrorism involves a violent lawlessness in which aggression intrudes into the ordinary existence of people.

The horrors of conflict and organized violence have not escaped touching the lives of the young. A year is comprised of 525,600 minutes, but it takes only one moment to make a lasting impact on children and young adults. The powerful images of this event affected many students throughout the country, and the enduring influence is intensified as their imaginations are fed by the memory of the violence.

In fact, the end of the twenty-first century has been burdened by images of brutality. Conflicts are characterized by atrocity, and recent history attests to an abandonment of any "rules of war, starting with the abandonment of respect for any distinction between combatants and civilians, or the innocence of children." (3) In the United States, the shock of direct attacks on our own soil has left us to deal with the aftermath. We have little empirical research to guide our responses to this form of tragedy because so few terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States. The most recent event, the Oklahoma City bombing, provides the most updated understanding of the reaction of children. (4) We have learned from other tragic incidents that the meaning we assign to events and the messages we highlight are crucial to the healing process. Terrorism is insidious in infiltrating the collective psyche with fear and the pervasiveness of our horror. Children and young adults are especially vulnerable to the psychological impact. Adults must guide the response of children and youth to an awareness that "the world needn't be evil simply because some people are. It is only evil when we let the evil happen." (5)

Social studies teachers in particular are confronted with how to respond to these acts of violence as they enveloped the nation. Gripping current events provide an important opportunity to expand students' global understanding of the world while integrating these important topics into the formal curriculum. While assisting students in managing devastation and loss, teachers can also see the experience as a segue into such content as the beliefs of Islam, the geography of Afghanistan, the history of U. …

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