from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 2

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

The Challenge of Terrorism: A Historical Reader
2003.  270 pages.  ISBN: 0-618-23616-3.
McDougal Littell, P.O. Box 1667, Evanston, Illinois 60204.
(McDougal Littell is a division of the Houghton Mifflin Company.)

This Book Doesn't Teach What Students Need to Know

Michael Radu

The meaning of the word terrorism is hotly disputed. Some democratic countries, such as the United States and the states of the European Union, have adopted definitions of terrorism, but the definitions are not consistent among themselves. The United Nations does not have a definition, nor does the recently established International Criminal Court.

It is a stretch, therefore, to expect high-school students and their teachers to use a book about terrorism without knowing what terrorism is supposed to mean -- but the editors of McDougal Littell's anthology The Challenge of Terrorism: A Historical Reader apparently expect students and teachers to do just that. In their section titled "Introduction," the editors merely offer short excerpts from news reports about twelve episodes of terrorism without giving even a preliminary definition of the phenomenon in question -- not even the fairly clear definition that is used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has been cited in FBI reports [see note 1, below]. "Terrorism," the FBI says, "is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as '. . . the unlawful use of force and violence against persons and property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.' "

Of the episodes mentioned in the introduction, the first is the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and the last is the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995. The inclusion of the Oklahoma City bombing underscores the difficulty of defining terrorism, and it reminds us that this term is often used sloppily and promiscuously. The men who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building may have hated the federal government, but is there any evidence to suggest that they were trying to influence the federal government's policies or were trying to achieve some other political or social goal? [note 2].

After the introduction, the editors present some 35 items, most of which are articles, editorials, op-ed pieces and letters that were published originally in newspapers and magazines. These items form the body of the book and are deployed in four units -- Part I, titled "September 11, 2001"; Part II, "Examining Terrorism"; Part III, "Responding as a Nation"; and Part IV, "Responding as Individuals."

In Part I, the 9/11 attack on the United States is covered well, with descriptions of the attack itself, an article about the ideologue and strategist (Osama bin Laden) who lay behind the attack, an analytical piece ("Why Do They Hate Us?") by Fareed Zakaria, and the text of the address that President Bush delivered to the nation on 20 September 2001.

In Part II, "Examining Terrorism," the editors belatedly consider what terrorism means: In a prefatory statement, on page 102, they say that terrorism is "notoriously difficult to define," and then they recite the FBI's definition that I quoted above. The articles in Part II include several that present the views of serious analysts. One such piece is "Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century," an essay written by Yonah Alexander. Another, called "Who Is a Terrorist," has been derived from an interview that Brian Jenkins gave to the magazine Omni. Another, titled "The Use of Terror," has been extracted from an unsigned essay that appeared in 1996 in the reputable British weekly The Economist.

But then comes Part III, "Responding as a Nation," and here the editors display their own confusion while they foment confusion in the minds of their readers. In an article titled "Justice, Not War," an obscure sociologist named Kevin Danaher seems to advocate that we should respond to terrorism by doing nothing, though he recommends that we "demand internationalism rather than isolationism, justice rather than revenge, and love rather than hate." Likewise, Richard Rothstein (in a piece headlined "The Other War, Against Intolerance") endorses schoolhouse "multiculturalism" as a device for combating "rash views," and Laurie Goodstein (in an article titled "The Real Face of Islam") creates the impression that most Muslim religious leaders condemned the 9/11 attack -- an impression that is clearly false. The editors also reproduce a statement in which the liberal senator Russ Feingold, speaking in 2001, worried that H.R. 3162 (which became the U.S.A Patriot Act of 2001) would lead to an erosion of "the liberties of the American people." It is unfortunate that students who use The Challenge of Terrorism will read Feingold's statement but will not read any report of the hearing, held in 2003, at which one of Feingold's fellow liberals, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., defended the Patriot Act against "ill-informed and overblown criticism," and another of Feingold's liberal colleagues, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said that she was unaware of even one abuse of the Act [note 3].

Part IV, "Responding as Individuals," is clearly the worst. It is a bundle of feel-good anecdotes and pop-psychology fancies, with titles like "A Victim of Terrorism Helps Others" and "Should We Be Afraid?" and "Helping Children Understand." (Children? Isn't this supposed to be a book for high-school students?) As a whole, Part IV encourages the notion that a terrorist attack is merely a kind of psychological trauma, and that a citizen's response to terrorism needn't be any different from visiting a shrink.

In the American educational environment, characterized by geographical and historical ignorance, The Challenge of Terrorism renders an important service by presenting a chronology of terrorist actions, a collection of maps, and photographs of terrorists' victims. All of these are extremely welcome and useful. So is the book's strategy of providing genuine news articles, opinion pieces, and other items, rather than material written by or for schoolteachers. But even so, this book fails to deliver the knowledge that would enable ordinary students or teachers to grasp the global phenomenon of terrorism. Superficial and emotional approaches to terrorism (or, worse, pseudopsychological approaches) help nobody. Students need to know that they, like everyone else, are targets -- but The Challenge of Terrorism doesn't teach this lesson.

Ultimately, the value of The Challenge of Terrorism will depend upon what classroom teachers do with it. One must wonder how teachers who have absorbed the habits of political correctness and the doctrines of "multiculturalism" -- habits and doctrines that now are normal features of American public education and are publicly promoted by the predominant teachers' union, the National Education Association -- might deal with some of the items that are included in this book. For instance: How can "multiculturalism," which demands uncritical respect for whatever non-European people do, be squared with what students will read in the article that fills pages 79 through 89? Headlined "Osama bin Laden on the Attacks," the article is an excerpt from a transcript of a conversation in which Osama bin Laden and one of his followers express their gratitude to Allah for the success of the 9/11 attacks. Political correctness and "multiculturalism" simply are not compatible with any serious analysis of contemporary terrorism, most of which is Islamic and is perpetrated by Muslims [note 4].


  1. For example, the report Terrorism in the United States: 1999. [return to text]

  2. See "Definitions of Terrorism Often Vary," by Mary H. Cooper, in The CQ Researcher, 21 July 1995. [return to text]

  3. See, for example, "Patriot Act Misunderstood, Senators Say," by Susan Schmidt, in The Washington Post, 22 October 2003. [return to text]

  4. See "Massacre Draws Self-Criticism in Muslim Press" in The New York Times, 9 September 2004. [return to text]

Michael Radu is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (in Philadelphia) and a co-chairman of the Institute's Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism.


Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail