Creating a Personal History of the War on Terror

During Fall 2017, I participated in a directed study project entitled “Voices from the War on Terror” with Professor Abbas and six other students. Together, we engaged with oral history as a form of analytical research and understanding in order to try and capture the feelings and opinions of the Geneseo community in regards to 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror.’ We looked closely at the lasting impact that sixteen years of war had on the opinions and ideas of the American public, specifically the Geneseo community. The directed study sought to answer questions such as, how did the Geneseo campus and community responded in the midst, and wake, of 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror?’ What is the significance of these communal views within the context of the nation as a whole? Why is it important to understand individual perspectives of historical events as they happened and were experienced? How do the consequences of these events affect our lives as students of Geneseo today?

Each student was expected to conduct three interviews with an individual framework of study in mind. In this, we were trying to accumulate a multitude of interviews, with a range of participants, to try and create an archive that might outline a more holistic picture of the Geneseo community’s response. These interviews will be placed in Milne Library for future students to access and use. We hope that in listening to the discussions, conversations may be sparked as we continue to grapple, as a community, with the ramifications of the ‘War on Terror.’

Map of the “War on Terror”. Red indicates nations in which military efforts against terrorism have been undertaken; yellow indicates nations involved in the War on Terror campaign where terrorist attacks have occurred. [Source]
My personal focus, when choosing and conducting my research, was to learn about the effects that 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror,’ had on students and educators, with a special interest in how this is reflected in the classroom, both in the last sixteen years, and today. Consequently, the participants that I reached out to were all educators who were able to think critically about the topic at hand and approach it with different perspectives and ideas. Over the course of the directed study, and my three interviews, my own definition of what it means to be actively engaged in learning about the ‘War on Terror’ has changed, as we discussed the role that societal and political agendas play(ed) in shaping the public’s universal understanding of the events.

To begin, I first interviewed Professor Cope, a member of the History Department, who has been working at Geneseo since August of 2001. His particular take on the education and memory of 9/11 was that it extends far beyond the classroom to include our cultural memory, in the way government policy decisions have created and produced stigmas of fear and paranoia in our society.

“I’m really interested in cultural memory and the ways that do cultural memories get perpetuated over time. One of the ways of looking at that is how reminders of events get structured into everyday life. That can happen through landscape, through war memorials and things like that. But I think that with 9/11, we are in a world where every time that you go to the airport, and you go through these really elaborate screening processes, this is a reminder that America changed after 9/11. So there are these unconscious reminders that, I think, have been formalized in really complicated, and sometimes problematic, ways. So its… references to 9/11 are not necessarily explicit in the world that we move through but they are implicit and everywhere. So it has the effect of keeping alive a sense of, “oh yeah we have to be vigilant about terror, we have to be vigilant about the, the world that we live in is not as safe as we maybe think it is.”

In this, Professor Cope is arguing that our collective education is being consciously, and subconsciously, influenced by government policy decisions that act as a reminder, as well as a reinforcer, of the fears that coincides with believing that “terrorism” is an ever present force lurking around us.

Security screening at Denver Airport. [Source]
Professor Cope’s sentiments were reflected by Sarah Prinzi, a local high school teacher who is an alumna of Geneseo. She graduated in 2003 with her Master’s in Education, and was a Junior on September 11, 2001. Mrs. Prinzi built upon the ideas articulated by Professor Cope, to include the rhetoric employed by our government and politicians as a form of public education that plays into the American public’s fears and paranoia.

“I think that there’s just a lot, people are a lot more xenophobic, but whether or not thats… its hard to know what came first because I know that there’s a lot of xenophobia that came out in our last presidential election. Was that caused by the politicians? Why was that caused by the politicians? Is it a fear that was already there that they were playing on? My thought is yes, that this is a fear, because of terrorist activities that they, and then because there are refugees coming from countries, people are afraid of immigrants, so I don’t know. I’m leery of saying that it’s because of 9/11 but I think that 9/11, at the very least, is very connected with the xenophobia.”

Mrs. Prinzi is building on the idea of subconscious influences as she outlines the rhetoric employed by politicians to ignite fear in the public for their own personal gain.

A cartoon showing some of the political rhetoric deployed after 9/11. Marshall Ramsey / The Clarion Ledger.

So ultimately what grew from our conversations was an understanding that, yes, educators are actively speaking with students about 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ but much of the wider public’s education, in this regard, is shaped by the paranoia that is being stoked by public policy decisions and political rhetoric. In this, we can see a juxtaposition of ideas and fears best summed up by Professor Sergeant, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. army and a history and humanities professor at Geneseo.

“I mean you could bring your gun on a plane if you wanted to [prior to 9/11], everybody had a pocket knife nobody thought twice, now if you take a pocket knife out in class students audibly gasp, “oh my God why do you have a,” I’m like it’s a two inch pocket knife what are you kidding me? Somehow we’ve kind of changed our perception in society, it’s very strange, I can hand out ten inch long stainless steel scissors to every kid, but if you take out a little two inch pocket knife that’s closed, locked, and in your pocket that makes them nervous, to me, the other thing is practically a sword or a dagger, and yet this is what makes you nervous? Because that’s what they’ve been taught.”

Professor Sargent is summing up the ideas presented by Professor Cope and Mrs. Prinzi, in that, the accumulation of these societal fears has led to a skewed sense of what is a danger to “us,” and what is still considered to be socially acceptable practices.

The accumulation of these collective understandings of the education and the training of the American public to be fearful and actively aware of the perceived dangers that terrorism poses to the “American way of life” has been articulated and widely accepted throughout society. This was a staple of our discussion in the directed study, as we grappled with the continued consequences of the ‘War on Terror,’ and how these actions have manifested themselves into the consciousness of the Geneseo community at large.

Doty Hall, SUNY Geneseo.

As a student of this directed study, the experience has taught me to have a newfound appreciation for oral history as a tool for research and study. I have learned, as a student of history, to be wary of oral history because of its implicit biases, but I have come to understand that all sources have biases and the advantages of using oral history rests in our capabilities to capture the more emotional, personal, and individual perspectives of specific events in history. Given that the study of history, is the study of humans over time, understanding unique individual’s perspectives, when applied to a larger understanding of historical events, can help to create a more holistic picture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top