Shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush announced these as acts of war, and proclaimed a “war on terrorism.” But what exactly was to be the target of this war? And what precisely did the president mean by terrorism? Despite uttering the words “terror,” “terrorist,” or “terrorism” 32 times in his September 20 speech to the nation, he never defined terrorism. Teachers need to engage our students in a deep critical reading of terms—such as “terrorism,” “freedom,” “patriotism,” and “our way of life”—that evoke vivid images but can be used for ambiguous ends.
Since September 11, 2001, the balance between civil liberties and security has often tipped in favor of the latter. But this imbalance is also part of our history. Only seven years after the Bill of Rights was signed, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. During World War I, a new and more virulent rendition of these acts became law. In the wake of September 11, we saw the passage of the PATRIOT Act. The voices in this chapter recognize that we are fighting old enemies in a new political package. They ask us to listen carefully to the reasons the Bush administration gave for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They ask us to learn from our past mistakes and to question governmental decisions that have lead us into new wars.