Recently, a local high school girl I will call Lisa interviewed me for a report she was doing on torture. I am the founder and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project, where we film in-depth interviews of former detainees, their family members and people who have lived or worked in the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Currently, there are 164 people still held in the prison.
During the interview, I explained that although physical torture was present in Guantanamo, the detainees often referred to the detention center as a psychological prison. Extended periods of isolation and other psychological mistreatment were commonly practiced. I mentioned that one of the most egregious situations, where a detainee was both physically and psychologically tortured, concerned the man the government believes would have been the twentieth hijacker. In fact, I added, the military had even acknowledged his torture.
As I was about to continue, I noticed that Lisa was giving me this puzzled look as if she did not quite understand what I was saying. It took me a moment to realize that she did not know what I meant by the twentieth hijacker.
I explained, "you know, there were 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, five of whom were on each plane except for the plane that was downed in the fields in Pennsylvania. There were only four hijackers on that plane. The fifth is allegedly in Guantanamo."
She continued to look at me curiously. "You know about the attacks on September 11, 2001?" I confirmed. I added, "When the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C." She shook her head.
September 11, 2001 was a dozen years ago. Lisa was five. Apparently, her history books did not cover such "recent" events. Nor did her civics class address 9/11 and its accompanying critical issues of the rule of law and the due process rights of detainees. In no class did her school teach a unit on 9/11. It also seems that her parents never said anything to her about the events of that day, and how that day had transformed all our lives forever.
Because I was shocked and caught off guard by her response, I never asked Lisa what she knew about the origination of torture in America. How did it surface? Did she think that torture was always present in the United States? Had she ever given any serious thought as to how the use of torture became part of our culture? Was she equally uninformed as to when the U.S. first decided to use Guantanamo to house alleged terrorists and "enemy combatants?" I am surmising that she is not alone. Many of her classmates must be equally in the dark about all things 9/11.
Perhaps if Lisa had believed that the United States has always tortured, she was somewhat inured to what it really meant to "study" torture in America. She was merely learning about "torture" in the abstract. Similarly, perhaps, Guantanamo had always existed in her mind. The events on 9/11 did not precipitate her study. Rather, they had no context to her study.
Unfortunately, I am not certain that Lisa's response was unusual. Our history books and classes seem to identify history as, at minimum, a generation or two in the past. Recent events are overlooked or ignored. Do educators believe that something is not history until decades have passed? In the interim, do the events remain in the ether for students to access on their own?
There is also the likelihood that it is safer to teach a unit on 9/11 once a generation or two has passed. Years from now, our memories of the horror of 3,000 people dying and our images of people leaping out of burning buildings will have faded. Our memories will also be blurry as we try to recall our government's unholy response to 9/11 -- including its plodding war in Afghanistan and the human rights abuses and rule of law violations perpetuated in the name of justice. The events of 9/11 will be just another fold in the creases of history.
One or two generations from now, the time will arrive when our children and grandchildren learn about 9/11. They will open their books or iPads and read about that day. While their teacher reviews the unit, a few of the children will halt what they were doing, and put their smartphones and other devices aside. They will listen to their teacher and read along of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. They will then look up in wonder and think to themselves, "Omg, I had no idea that this had ever happened!"
Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco, founder and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project. He is also the author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror, published by the University of California Press.