The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

Teaching and Learning the Lesson of Complexity

Sallie Marston
Department of Geography and Regional Development, University of Arizona,  Tucson, AZ 85721, U.S.A.
Farhang Rouhani
Department of Geography, Mary Washington College, 1301 College Avenue, Fredericksburg, VA 22401, U.S.A.

The airborne assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 have undeniably transformed the worlds and world views of ordinary Americans. While the entire country watched with horror as thousands of people perished in the assault on two of the most powerful symbols of the American landscape, a disturbing political discourse began to be constructed by both the media and the government, a discourse that fed off popular frustration, fear, and anger. This early discourse focused our attention not on achieving justice for the victims of the disaster but on “hunting down” the perpetrators, on “bombing Afghanistan into the Stone Age” on wreaking revenge on  “those people.” Since the early days of the attacks, government and media have reconceptualized the response as a “new kind of war” to be “fought in the shadows,” dependent upon changing diplomatic alliances and intelligence gathering, resulting “in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated.” And yet, as we completed this essay, the bombing of Afghanistan began.

As ordinary people and as individuals who were either born in the U.S. or who have chosen it as our home, we are appalled by the nearly incomprehensible viciousness of the attacks. We share the grief of those thousands upon thousands of people throughout the country and the world who have lost people they loved, or their sources of livelihood, or their sense of security and optimism about the future. As academics and teachers, we have struggled with how to talk about the disaster—to our students, and to our families, friends and local communities—in ways that both respect the delicacy of individual feelings but also appropriately situate the tragedy in the larger historical, political and economic context within which it absolutely must be comprehended.

In this brief essay we describe some of our struggles with teaching and talking about the complexity that lies behind the events of 11 September. We offer these observations as geographers who study the politics of difference and who believe that a critical geopolitics (as well as ordinary people) must recognize the linkages that connect the scale of the body to the scale of the globe. At the heart of our commitment to a critical geopolitics is another commitment to comprehend the complex nature of this human conflict in order to build understanding across the vast divides of social, cultural, and political difference. We have found that simply unpacking some of the key terms of the current militarized discourse helps to open up the possibility for a more informed discussion of the events and their likely consequences. We realize the observations and practices we offer below come nowhere near exhausting the long list of issues that should and must be discussed. These are simply ones that keep recurring in our academic and our personal lives.

As critical political geographers have shown, it is important to move beyond the acceptance of geopolitics as a reality of world politics and to examine critically the ways in which geopolitical terms are defined and the significant social meanings they hold. We have been successful with helping others to think about causes and consequences by talking about the need to see geopolitics as dependent upon particular visions of “power” and “geography,” rather than on the simple reality of rivalry in world politics. Key geopolitical concepts such as “power,” “security,” and “the world order” do not have innately given definitions, but require critical analysis. This is not to say that geopolitical visions do not have significant real world implications, the most threatening and looming one of which is the possibility of war, but rather that there is nothing given or inevitable about how a concept such as security should come into practice in the form of the extreme violence of war. Unravelling concepts like security is especially important because the mainstream media tend generally to accept the definitions offered by government officials.

For instance, the concept of security has multiple meanings at multiple scales. At one level, there is personal, bodily security, which can be measured along a continuum from death to survival. Security as seen at the scale of the nation-state can lead us to conceptualize a conflict as “us” versus “them.” And there are other terms that inform the discussion of the events of 11 September that are also important to comprehend fully. At the global scale terms such as “rogue state” and the “world order” need to be unpacked so that their many valences and implications can be fully appreciated. In addition to appreciating how these often taken-for-granted concepts are constructed, it is also important to explore the different ways, aggressive and otherwise, that the concepts can and do come into practice.

We have found that an especially important term to grapple with in all its complexity is the concept of violence. Thus one of the major teaching and learning challenges we have encountered is the need to convey this complexity carefully so that popular understanding can absorb the history, geography, and politics that surround that one nearly incomprehensible act of violence that is seared into our memories.

Violence can be personal. The fatal shooting of an East Asian Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Arizona by a man who shouted as he was being arrested, “I stand for America all the way,” is an example of brutal personal violence committed as retribution for the 11 September attacks. The fact that many Arabs, Muslims, and other dark-skinned people living in the US are reluctant to travel by air, or afraid to go to school, or fearful about going to the mosque to pray are also examples of personal violence.

Violence can also be structural and structural violence, though less dramatic, can cause significant injury and harm. Structural violence is the result of the widespread social, political, and economic inequality that can exist in the intimate spaces of our lives as well as in the global space of international relations. Structural violence occurs through taken for-granted processes like market mechanisms and unexamined social practices. Structural violence results in lower pay for women than for men in nearly every country and region of the world. Structural violence occurs when the neoliberal policies of the World Bank require the governments of peripheral countries to devalue their wage rates in order to stabilize the national and global monetary system. Structural violence can be slow and silent, but it can be just as deadly as personal violence.

And of course, our conversations and teaching require us to confront state violence. This is the form of violence—when it is visited upon another state in acts of aggression and war—that appears to be most comprehensible and acceptable to the general public. State violence occurred when the U.S. sent missiles and ground troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991. State violence occurred when the U.S. sent “freedom fighters” to Nicaragua in the 1980s. State violence occurred when the American CIA recruited, armed, and financed Osama bin Laden and other Muslim extremists to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan 1980s.

And finally there is terrorism, a complex form of violence that contains elements of all three, and then some. Terrorism can involve an attack on an individual or on private property and it can be enacted by a single person, a group, a political party, or a state.

Violence, and one of its most disturbing manifestations, terrorism, runs through and through the events that led up to, resulted in, and have become or will become consequences of the attacks of 11 September. We have found that talking about the complexity of violence and terrorism helps to sort through the dense and difficult conditions and events of the last few weeks by connecting them to a history and a politics that extends beyond the present.

In addition to confronting terms such as the world order, power, security, and violence, to name just a few, we have also found it important to help people to think through to the future. Just as surely as the events of 11 September were shaped by previous political geographies and events, new political geographies will emerge from the current state of global political restructuring that is now overtly and covertly unfolding.  These new political geographies will be central to the shaping of future events, conflicts, and alliances, and will present opportunities for and obstacles to co-operation. For instance, what might it mean that Russia is moving closer politically to the West by dropping its objections to the deployment of U.S. and NATO military forces in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as in other parts of its sphere of influence in Central Asia? How will the co-operative stance taken by Pakistan toward the U.S. effect our efforts to avert nuclear war between Pakistan and India?

Through community panels, classroom lectures, discussions over dinner and over the backyard fence, we have been intensely, and often painfully, engaged in trying to comprehend the causes and likely consequences of the terror attacks of 11 September, 2001. We have found that our interlocutors express a wide range of views about the events and about how the U.S. and other parts of the world should respond to them. Many of these views have been frightening, deriving from fear and ignorance. As teachers, we continue to try to shape those views by helping those with whom we speak to comprehend these seemingly random events as deeply embedded in complex historical and political geographies. We try to help them to understand that wiping out terrorism requires far more than simply killing terrorists.

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

Flint (Intro) / Smith / Agnew / Abu-Nimer / McColl / Nijman / Marston & RouhaniFlint (conclusion)

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