9/11 started me on a process of learning about the world in a way my college professors at that time could only grasp theoretically and hypothetically. The language to explain the September attacks has not been developed yet, and over the next decade there would be no shortage of pundits and experts coming out of the woodwork to explain the event away.
As an observer far removed from the event itself, I cannot lay claim to the grief that I am certain still grips people who lost loved ones that day. The indignation I feel against those who perpetrate acts of terror is not rooted in patriotic anger, but in a shared disbelief over the worst that men can do to each other.
For sure, 9/11 taught me that the world was complex. It made me ask tougher questions about religion, politics, and humanity itself. But learning about the seemingly sophisticated intersections of faith and geopolitics only led me to develop a simple instinct. Early on I already began to hold on to the conviction that the key to a safer world was not more theory but more empathy. I grew convinced that though behind our borders lie our differences, there are values we can share which transcend race, region, and religion.
But the past ten years have also shown me that holding on to such belief isn’t easy. We seem even farther away from what many feel is an impending global ethos. History, after all, has been unkind to utopian dreams and those who have tried — from Mao Zedong to Osama bin Laden — have not been judged kindly.
In 2008, I saw in Barack Obama the type of leadership that this coming world needs. But looking at his performance now, that world is farther off still. Partisanship remains the political impulse; new political battle lines are drawn each day. The hunger for redemption that brought Noynoy Aquino into the Philippine presidency is now exhausted, leaving in its place the same rancor and divisiveness that marks all politics. And all this is tragic. For in each day, a new reason for us to share and work together emerges. We feel it in our dwindling paychecks, our rising bills, the mercilessness of our climate, and the deepening chasm between those who can make do and those who can’t.
I often tell my students that 9/11 began me on the intellectual path that led me to become a social studies teacher. Then it was in being an educator that I discovered a deeper passion for forming student leaders and proactive citizens. After all, if there is one thing I learned in the past ten years, it is that ideas can be powerful things. All it takes is for one man to have the courage and will to wield it. In the hands of a terrorist they can destroy, but in the hands of a teacher, they can build.
Years ago my professors were caught in a world they can’t explain away. My objective is different: not to explain, but to put in my students the tools they need to help build a world no evil can take away.