Editor’s Note: As the country approaches the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Teaching Tolerance bloggers have written about their insights and experiences in the classroom as a result of the attacks. We offer these for your reflection and adoption.
I had coffee with a colleague recently and we discussed plans for lessons on Sept. 11. Robin outlined her discussion and writing plan based on George Orwell’s 1984—specifically on the “Two Minutes’ Hate” he describes.
“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes’ Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part,” Orwell wrote, “but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
That started me thinking about hate and fear.
What does hate lead to? According to Orwell, letting hate consume you—even for two minutes—can result in fear, vindictiveness, violence and destruction. Orwell clearly warns just how harmful fear can be. Sadly, his warning has not been completely heeded.
Robin said when discussing the novel 1984 with her world literature class, she mentioned the word “fear” and the topic of terrorism and 9/11 bubbled to the surface. Ten years have passed since that catastrophic event, yet emotions surrounding it still remain ever near.
She paired the concept of the “Two Minutes’ Hate” with the fear that pervaded the characters throughout the novel. What was the purpose of the “Two Minutes’ Hate”? What was the benefit of having a scapegoat, an enemy? How could it be beneficial to actively hate another human being?
Although written more than 60 years ago as a cautionary tale about Stalinism, the fear, hatred and violence experienced by the society in 1984 has some parallels in the atmosphere that followed 9/11. After that tragic day, our nation was flooded with fear. Hate crimes directed at Muslims (and those believed to be Muslims) soared. Mosques were vandalized while innocent people were verbally attacked and beaten. Some were even killed.
Unlike the novel, however, these acts were not committed by a huge and obvious mob. More frighteningly, these acts were committed by a fringe few whose prejudiced beliefs were ignored and then boiled over. This is also how true terrorists, like the ones behind 9/11 and the one behind the July 22 Norwegian massacre, are made.
As we commemorate 9/11's 10th anniversary, we need to be ever vigilant to not let fear cloud our humanity or our love for our fellow human beings. We need to teach our students to do the same.
At the end of the discussion, Robin asked her students to reflect on 9/11, specifically asking if we, like the society in 1984, needed a common enemy to hate?
“We do need a public enemy,” one student poignantly replied, “but not like that. Crime or poverty should be more of the public enemy that the world works to fight against because those two kill more people than Bin Laden has.”
What if we spent our time—like the first responders and citizen heroes of 9/11—focusing on ways to help and support each other, regardless of religion or ethnicity? When people were rescuing others on 9/11, everyone was the same; all were just people in need. That would be the lesson I’d want to teach.
Sansbury is a middle and high school English teacher in Georgia.