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Teaching & Understanding Sept 11 Mark Hamm & Paul Leighton


Dave O. Friedrichs, University of Scranton

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It may still be too early to say with certainty whether the September 11th Attack on America was a “major event” or a “defining moment.” A major event has some historical importance, but not an enduring or significant lasting impact, while a “defining moment” is regarded in the future as an event which set in motion some fundamental changes in our collective consciousness, and in many aspects of our existence. I believe that the events of Sept 11 have at least a considerable potential to assume the status of a defining moment ; moreover, I believe it is in our long-term collective interest as a society to take advantage of the opportunity provided by this event to attend to conditions in the larger globalized world to which we belong that we have been inadequately attentive to in the past. The events of September 11th may turn out to be less the cause of important changes in the future than a powerful warning to focus on how our world is changing. And criminologists may have a special obligation to address September 11th and its Aftermath, because it intersects in so many ways with the concerns of criminologists.

We face several basic options in response to September 11th, in our classes: we can wholly disregard it; we can make occasional references to it; we can introduce one or more formal lectures on it, demonstrating its relevance for a particular course; we can undertake a formal integration of September 11th issues into our courses as a whole; we can replace one or more of our existing courses with one or more courses focusing wholly on September 11th and some of its broader implications. Parallel options exist with regard to the curriculum as a whole. In approaching this whole topic we have to differentiate between two challenges. First, to prepare our students for the possibility of further – potentially much more devastating – attacks in some form, and all the possible consequences of such attacks. And second, to enhance our students’ understanding of the conditions in the world which foster hatred of America, and how we might respond to these conditions. On the one hand, we don’t want to be in a situation where further down the road – after the “big thing” happens – people ask: Why didn’t academics see this coming? Why wasn’t this being addressed systematically? 

On the other hand, we want to promote in our student an understanding of a complex, globalized world, and America’s historical role in such a world, if we believe that in the long term fundamental problems in the world have to be effectively addressed. On my campus, I proposed the following steps to address September 11th: Establishment of a Task Force on the long-term University response to September 11th; teach-ins; consideration of new interdisciplinary courses; one or more faculty seminars. Some of these things have happened, some not. Most of the faculty seems disinclined to undertake a formal, systematic response, for whatever combination of reasons (denial; a sense that it detracts too much from our primary educational mission; skepticism of any real benefits from such efforts; etc.). Obviously if a new attack, or a series of attacks, now occur, attitudes may change. Probably most faculty – and students – are strongly resistant to altering in any fundamental way their activities and attitudes.

As someone who has co-taught a course on the Holocaust for quite a number of years now I had long wondered what German criminologists were doing in the 1930s, while their state was in the process of implementing one of the great crimes in human history. Through my general knowledge of what happened in the German universities during this period – and through some preliminary investigation of some of the limited literature on the subject – it was possible to arrive at the unsurprising conclusion that they certainly were not addressing the crimes of the Nazis! A young historian, Richard Wetzell, in Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2000) has certainly documented this, demonstrating that these criminologists remained focused on conventional forms of criminal behavior, with some of these criminologists embracing a racist, biogenetic approach very compatible with the views of the Nazis. If it is the case that at the outset of the 21st century we are contending with a significant crisis and threat, will some future generations look back to the preoccupations of contemporary criminologists – as teachers and scholars – with bewilderment or disdain?

If we choose to address September 11th and Its Aftermath in our courses, we face some practical and ethical conundrums. How do balance out time devoted to this event and its broader implications from the general expectation of most of our students that they will be provided with the knowledge they need to pursue post-graduate study, and to be successful in their chosen careers? What do we delete from courses, and a curriculum with which we typically experience frustration insofar as we cannot address everything we would like to include? And is it possible that a greater focus on the frightening and sometimes overwhelming challenges brought into such sharp relief by September 11th might be counterproductive, in the sense of possibly promoting a profound sense of despair (and retreatism)? For progressive criminologists, in particular, questions also arise of how one best addresses criticisms of American policy and culture in an environment of hyper-patriotism, without inspiring misunderstanding and hostility?
Here I will indicate some of the questions I have raised in courses taught during the Fall, 2001, semester, and since, in relation to September 11th. 

[additional links to teaching & pedagogy]

INTRODUCTION TO SOCIOLOGY: Students are invited to consider how the following sociological concepts and topics, to be addressed in this class, should enrich an understanding of September 11th: Durkheim’s “altruistic” suicide (and the terrorist pilots); Weber’s rationalization (as a Western value, preempted in the terrorist planning process); cultural values and ethnocentrism (in relation to Islamic fundamentalism, and the American mainstream); socialization patterns, and re-socialization (in relation to the acquisition of a commitment to terrorism, and responses of other parties); absolutist and relativist conceptions of deviance (in characterizations of the acts of terrorists); mechanisms of social control (by groups such as Al Qaeda, and by states such as our own); the involvement of various forms of social stratification (e.g., global socioencomic inequality; gender inequality in Taliban Afghanistan); traditional, modern, and postmodern worlds (with conflicts and contradictions as important aspects of the context within which September 11th occurred); social institutions (e.g., political; religious; etc., in relation to September 11th and the response to it); social movements and collective behavior (e.g., Islamic fundamentalism as a social movement); and social change (or the forces of social change complicit in September 11th and the response to it). 

LAW & SOCIETY: The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon as defiance of law, and as compliance with “law.” The terrorist attack as calling for responses within the boundaries of law, and outside the boundaries of law. The terrorist attack as calling for the administration of justice and preventative measures within the framework of American law, or some other ordering of law.

INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE: The challenge of retail terrorism and wholesale terrorism in relation to the criminal justice system. The allocation of criminal justice resources (e.g., to address terrorism; white collar crime; illicit drugs). The Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues arising in the American response to terrorism. The use of informants in the war on terrorism. Local, state, federal, and international justice, in a globalized world.

SOCIOLOGY OF DEVIANCE: Conventional American conceptions of deviance vs. Al Qaeda/Taliban conceptions of deviance. Symptomatic and substantive dimensions of deviance (e.g., the assumption of conventional outward appearances by September 11th terrorists, while preparing to commit wholly unconventional activities. Osama bin Laden as Evil Villain and as Charismatic Icon. Holy texts, as sources for saintly acts and evil acts. Profiling and political correctness in relation to domestic security. Social control and protection versus individual freedom and privacy.

THE HOLOCAUST [I co-teach an interdisciplinary course with five colleagues; I assume responsibility for social, behavioral, jurisprudential, and criminological dimensions of the Holocaust.] A comparative table is appended.

The foregoing merely attempts to identify some very preliminary ways of enabling students to see connections between the substantive focus of particular courses and the issues arising in relation to September 11th and its aftermath. Numerous specific initiatives – e.g., military tribunals; expanded governmental investigative powers – can be discussed in the context of particular courses, as well as much broader sociohistorical questions – e.g., “the clash of civilizations” thesis; Western cultural hegemony; the polarization of rich and poor in a global economy. The challenges involved in integrating September 11th and its aftermath in our courses, and our curriculum, in a truly meaningful and not superficial way, are certainly formidable. Our failure to address these challenges, however, would be morally irresponsible.

THE HOLOCAUST AND THE ATTACK ON AMERICA – COMPARED is only available in the .txt version.


Friedrichs, David O. 1996. Trusted Criminals: White Collar Crime in Contemporary Society (Belmont, CA: ITP/Wadsworth).

Krugman, Paul. 2002. “The Great Divide.” The New York Times (January 29): A21. 

Wetzell, Richard F. 2000. Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945 (Chapel Hill, NC; University of North Carolina Press).




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