Educational Freedom and the Forever War

I was in high school, preparing for college, when the U.S. government declared a “global war on terror[ism].” President George W. Bush described this as a “war to save civilization itself” from intolerance. Unlike terrorists, he said in November 2001, “we value education” and “the right to speak our minds,” and “we respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion.”

How has that worked out, from the vantage point of life inside the United States? Has “terror” been eradicated here in the “homeland,” more than twenty years (and $8 trillion) after that war began? Have we saved education, free expression, and the peaceful coexistence of all faiths?

Let’s talk about that from the perspective of American educators and students. Let’s talk about the experience of a generation growing up under the threat of school shootings and similar attacks on other public places, which are the face of terror in their time.

Allen is a rapidly growing and diversifying suburb of Dallas, Texas. This weekend, an outlet mall there was the site of this year’s 199th American mass shooting. The attacker killed eight people, including three children, and wounded several more.

So far, all available information suggests the accused shooter, who was killed by a police officer, was interested in neo-Nazism and other extremist ideologies. A former security guard who had briefly enlisted in the U.S. military—and who would have been about eleven years old on September 11—he was sporting paramilitary gear, including a patch that identified him, apparently not ironically, as a member of a “right-wing death squad.” He also had Nazi tattoos. So we may reasonably assume, pending more information, that the attack in Allen was an act of terrorism.

If that assumption holds true, then the Allen attack may be grouped with other recent massacres in the United States, including the Portland transit attack (2017), the Pittsburgh synagogue attack (2018), the El Paso Walmart attack (2019), and the Buffalo supermarket attack (2022), to name only a few of the higher-profile terrorism incidents in America since the Charleston church massacre (2015).

The U.S. government says there were no fewer than 231 “domestic” terrorism incidents across the United States between 2010 and 2021, and they were most often motivated either by racism and ethnic hatred (35% of the time) or else that other all-American motive, “anti-government” ideology (32%).

The fact is, terrorism is alive and well in main-street America.

Domestic terrorism incidents by state, 2010-2021 (Government Accountability Office)

Of course, that’s only a small part of the larger truth that Americans are constantly at war with ourselves.

Around 40,000 Americans now die of gunshot wounds every year—more than half in acts of suicide—and the U.S. has the highest homicide rate of any large high-income nation—by a lot. That isn’t new. Neither is the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any large state in the world, much higher than those of many countries Americans recognize as unfree, yet it still has an exceptional state of civil violence.

What is new, in the age of the failed “war on terror” and all its resulting bitterness, is that two thirds of Americans have lost faith in their democracy. And a large minority now indicate they might be willing to engage in organized political violence themselves.

As for education: Most school shootings, so far, seem to have primarily personal rather than political motives. But we should understand them as part of the story of modern terrorism anyway. One reason for this is the outsized influence that the Columbine High School attackers have had on other young mass murderers around the world since 1999.

The Columbine killers understood themselves as terrorists—albeit nihilist terrorists, which made the ideological nature of their attack illegible to most of us at the time. Inspired partly by earlier political attacks inside the United States, especially the Oklahoma City bombing four years earlier, they actually planned the massacre as a series of bombings rather than a shooting, and they described their project as “a two-man war against everyone else” in the world, not merely as an act of targeted personal revenge against one school.

The Columbine killers have influenced many other school shooters over the years, both in the United States and abroad. And that’s not the end of the relationship. The Uvalde school shooter, for example, was apparently influenced by the Buffalo supermarket terrorist, while the Sandy Hook school shooter may have taken inspiration from the most notorious terror attack in Norway. Conversely, there’s also evidence that U.S. school shooters are inspiring political mass murderers around the world—including, it’s been suggested, the Norwegian terrorist, who, after all, specifically targeted a youth camp.

What effect has this terrible feedback loop had on education in our open society? A generation later, between school shootings in particular and the larger reality of mass killings, almost half of U.S. parents now say they’re afraid to send their oldest children to school, and most teenagers worry about being attacked there. Among adults in their teens and twenties, 40% worry about being a victim in a mass shooting; 21% of college students feel unsafe on campus. This fear is likely to be one of the factors contributing to soaring rates of youth anxiety since the mid-2000s.

Simply put, if the aim of terrorism is what George W. Bush thought—to divide and shut down the open society, especially with respect to education—then terrorism seems to be working, albeit gradually.

But it’s not a foreign import. It’s native to our cultural soil. And its main tool is one of our distinctive characteristics: a huge supply of civilian-owned guns.

In fact, looking closely with education in mind, we can’t avoid noticing that the current era of American terrorism actually started before September 11.

Two decades ago, despite Bush’s admirably high-minded rhetoric, many frightened Americans believed the myth that we could kill, torture, and discriminate our way to security and peace inside the United States. “For the 9/11 generation, the first generation to be extremely online,” as the national security journalist Spencer Ackerman put it in Reign of Terror, “the War on Terror was an early red pill, releasing an omnidirectional, violent nihilism that viewed itself as the only rational, sophisticated, honorable, and even civilized option.”

To be fair, this was just a new spin on a very old lie. In recent decades, racialized mass incarceration and immigration restrictions were manifestations of the same myth.

In the 2000s, though, the myth was retold on the basis of a Space Invaders model of national security: specific kinds of people were mortal enemies, and they simply had to be killed, wherever we found them, before they could reach us. (Years after 9/11, George W. Bush was still selling that idea. “Our strategy is this,” he declared in 2007: “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”)

But in addition to destroying the lives of many innocent foreigners, and overstretching American imperial power toward its breaking point, that model was also used immediately to justify a game that was more like Among Us: specific kinds of Americans or aspiring Americans were disloyal and deceitful, and they, too, must be banished or destroyed.

Since then, every aspect of the myth has been discredited many times, and we’ve seen how corrosive it’s been to every aspect of life here. Besides turning Americans against each other generally, that myth has been directly responsible for creating many of our domestic terrorists, who present themselves as saving American society from infiltrators.

The people who sold the lie of peacemaking violence just keep adding more people to their list of groups who should be treated as mortal enemies. Meanwhile, other Americans—now potentially including the attacker in Allen—keep deciding to take the eradication of domestic “enemies” into their own hands.

I don’t know what it’s going to take for America to stop pretending the myth of peacemaking violence and liberating fear was ever true. But the available evidence suggests some Americans are expecting to ride it down all the way to complete social collapse if they can.

Though specific ideologies do matter, the details of these attacks—who does them, against whom, for what motives—vary widely. Even the method varies, although the availability of paramilitary hardware to civilians is making these attacks more deadly.

What holds true across recent instances of mass murder in the United States is that they’re all warning signs that you can’t create security or openness by making a culture of fear and violence. Violence is contagious—if not in the short run, then in the long run.

The more we militarize, arm, and harden, the worse we should expect the long-term problem to get.

There are now emerging “domestic” terrorists today whose parents were children when the Columbine attack happened, who weren’t even alive yet during the invasion of Iraq, and who have no direct memory of the white-power attacks at Charleston or Charlottesville. Yet they have grown up marinating in apocalyptic loathing. They’ve been spawned in various Internet hellholes, yes, but also in putrid hothouses of extremism tended by supposedly mainstream politicians and social leaders.

Pouring more hatred and fear into their lives to save them from terrorism is like applying oil to a grease fire to smother it.

Returning to what George W. Bush said about education in November 2001, here’s what else I think this has to do with our schools.

Americans are currently locked in a wide variety of political debates about education. These debates are about how to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; about how we should understand the history and structure of racism in the United States; about how schools should have protected employees, students, and their families during a global pandemic; about the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement; about whether gay and transgender students (and parents) should be able to live openly; about which parents have what rights over their children’s educational environment; and about how exactly free speech (which everybody claims to support) actually works in an educational setting.

What we have to remember is that these debates are all happening in this context of two decades of simmering fear. Fundamentally, they’re happening amid Americans’ festering mistrust of each other.

That mistrust is being stoked by politicians who are specifically targeting the openness of our education system.

For example, the presumptive leader of one political party is now promising to use federal power to destroy the intellectual independence of colleges and universities across the United States, much as other authoritarian populists have done elsewhere, as a way to suppress “the radical left.” He had already denounced America’s educators as an internal enemy, by whom “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.”

His main rival for power inside his party has been overseeing a project to, e.g., expose teachers to felony prosecutions for letting third-graders read books that acknowledge the existence of gay people, or for letting high schoolers read books that suggest America has ever been racist. Although such laws are unpopular, about half the state legislatures in the Union have taken up similar initiatives to enforce right-wing political correctness during the past two years, often threatening teachers themselves with punishment for being responsive to Gen Z’s characteristic concerns and ideas.

All of these debates and acts of repression are ultimately about how—or whether—our social institutions will offer younger Americans, growing up in the age of terror, any viable alternative to the great failed myth of peacemaking violence and liberating fear.

For some of these young people, being able to imagine alternative narratives about how we can attain peace and flourishing is a matter of literal life and death. It’s what’s required to rescue some of them from radicalization themselves: to offer a realistic hope for a better world, hope that does not depend on violence.

And on the level of American life at large, what’s at stake is whether “society itself,” over the course of years and generations, will take responsibility for creating and investing in a state that works fairly for everyone. This, not armament or walls or repression, is the key to peace and security in the long term.

This is a matter of courage. It’s also a matter of generosity. Including the special form of courageous generosity required to coexist with people who are terribly mistaken about important things, and whom we must resist politically in order to protect the rights of others.

Defending an open society is hard. It’s an exhausting set of paradoxes—not something that can be done simply by defeating certain categories of people.

And as Americans defend the open society, it’s critical for both the right and the left to resist the self-fulfilling prophecy of apocalypticism. I say that not to draw a false equivalence but to acknowledge a fact: Apocalypticism is always corrosive to the open society. It always tends to rationalize cycles of extremism, to turn a society against itself, and to destroy our faith that a better future can be attained using resources we actually have. It is always likely to become a tool for the enemies of the open society.

Apocalypticism is how we got here. It’s not how we’ll get out.

The only way to make a freer and safer society is to make a freer and safer society. Not in the future after a great purification; not in the magic hour of an imaginary prelapsarian past; not in enclaves of security surrounded by violent outgroups; but in the lives we’re creating with many kinds of other people right now. And our education system must embody a steadfast commitment to doing that.

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