BY JOHN THOMPSON
On April 19, 1995, Ted Metscher, the president of the Oklahoma Federation of Teachers, was taking his students on a field trip to a downtown hospital. As the casualties arrived from the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, Metscher vowed to never push away from the negotiating table. Before long, union and corporate leaders formed a bipartisan coalition, MAPS for KIDS, to raise taxes to rebuild and to reform our decrepit schools.
Domestic terrorism forced many Oklahomans to rethink their reflexive anti-government ideologies. The state’s casual corruption and colorful examples of scorched-earth politics no longer seemed acceptable. MAPS for KIDS became one part of a 20-year urban revitalization effort – MAPS, Metropolitan Area Projects – that was implemented with a level of collaboration, professionalism, and shared purposefulness that would have previously been unthinkable.
Oklahoma City has been justly praised for its response to the Murrah tragedy. It was not just the heroism of the first responders, or the dedication of the service providers, or the compassion of our faith communities and volunteers that was transformative. According to President Bill Clinton, the community “burned away” the little things that divide and came to grips with the reality of “human interdependence.”
Over the last 20 years, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University have also grown more cosmopolitan. Their newfound excellence is demonstrated by the way that they marked the Murrah anniversary. The OU symposium Terror, Trauma, Memory, and the Murrah Center at the OCU Law School’s National Summit on Homeland Security Law, probed the global challenge of domestic and international terrorism.
The conferences’ eminent scholars and architects and political, legal, technology, medical, and security leaders presented a message that went beyond the Oklahoma City experience but reinforced the lessons that Oklahomans learned from the bombing and its aftermath.
As was discussed at OU, terrorism is often rooted in trauma. Mass murder does not merely inflict suffering; it is also a response, a part of a narrative where the perpetrators try to make sense of their pain and isolation. [That being said, Timothy McVeigh did not seem to have endured trauma that was remotely comparable to other examples of terrorists discussed, especially, at OU.]
As was further explained at OCU by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, it is terrorists who feel disenfranchised that are best able to recruit disenfranchised persons to join their violent conspiracies. Moreover, many of the best practices in fighting terrorism are very similar to those used to prevent gang violence.
NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston could have been describing the best of American school practices in regard to gangs, violence, and bullying when recounting efforts in Minnesota and Denmark to pull families together to counter terrorist recruiters or reconnect young fighters with the community.
An array of security experts enumerated the wide variety of threats that seem to be growing and changing rapidly, as well as the difficulties involved in a coordinated anti-terrorism campaign. The dangers are magnified by the growth of social media and the complexities of the digital world. But the conferences also described our successes and the reasons that the United States has been so effective in blocking a variety of attacks.
For instance, while we are often frustrated by the complicated task of guarding our borders, U.S. immigration policy has been far more successful than European efforts in preventing attacks.
As David Gersten of the Department of Homeland Security explains, the U.S. produces far fewer recruits for foreign civil wars because we do a better job at reaching out to the types of young people that terrorists would like to recruit.
It is not just the government’s “enhanced engagement” efforts that have undercut the recruitment of foreign fighters. America’s response to mass migration from poor and/or unstable countries has obviously been imperfect, but we are still more welcoming to immigrants than most other nations are.
Oklahoma City is like so many American communities that have become more prosperous and safer during the last 20 years as we became a magnet for immigrants. Our relative openness has been an eloquent answer to the international terrorists’ narratives.
While the security experts’ presentations confirm that the U.S. government, along with other state, international and local entities, has been very skillful in protecting our security, not every terrorist will be stopped. That is one reason that the resilience of our citizenry is all-important. And that is where public schools must join in.
Schools deal with the legacies of trauma and segregation. We could become great partners in “winning the hearts and minds” of not only potential terrorists but a range of persons at risk for destructive behavior.
Even if our democracy didn’t face terrorist threats, our schools should borrow from the best practices described at the symposiums for proactive methods of diverting alienated young persons from the narratives that justify violence.
We need full-service community schools that provide early education, medical, mental health, and other wraparound services. Our schools should be a venue where immigrant and nonimmigrant parents share conversations about the challenges of raising teens in the age of social networking. Our schools must become places where families are reminded that they belong, and that nurture trusting relationships. We must teach children how to rebound from adversity.
In the 21st Century, our classrooms must be safe places for studying and conversing about multiculturalism. We must teach cultural literacy and digital ethics. Our students must be reminded of a key principle of our democracy: Political opponents are opponents, not enemies.
Twenty years after terrorism helped prompt teachers union, community, and business leaders to start down a path toward reconciliation and cooperation, President Clinton shared a secret at the Murrah Memorial. It turns out that he had known former Republican Gov. Frank Keating longer than most Oklahomans had. Their partisan disagreements date back to college, lasting from 1965 to 1995. But they ended in April 1995.
In an era of globalization, bigger and better fences won’t fully protect our security. We must invest on the front end, before trauma, resentment, and isolation breed violence. We need organic solutions that pull together the best of our diverse society. The lessons learned in the wake of terrorism must be heeded in advance of future threats. Or, to borrow from the Memorial Mission Statement, we must come to the Murrah Memorial “to remember those who were killed, those who survived, and those changed forever.” May this memorial, may our schools and communities, and may our democratic heritage “offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics. This essay first appeared at the Huffington Post.