May 3, 2011

Students discuss terrorism, policy

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

The possibility of retaliation by terrorists, the future of Al Qaida and the strength of ties between Pakistan and the United States were topics of discussion at high schools throughout central Maine on Monday, as some teachers talked with their students about the death of Osama bin Laden.

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Winslow High School social studies teacher, Mike Thurston, discusses the news of Osama bin Laden's death with students during class at Winslow High School Monday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Many students at Colby College in Waterville were eager Monday to discuss the news about bin Laden and its impact, according to John Turner, an assistant professor of history specializing in Islamic history and law. Turner said he planned to discuss bin Laden this morning during his history of the modern Middle East class.

"There's a buzz on campus," Turner said. "People are asking about it and they're very interested in discussing it."

The big question, Turner said, is: does this really matter?

"I do think this is very important, at least symbolically," Turner said. "It may not be tremendous in terms of disrupting al-Qaida's abilities ... but in terms of the message it sends, it says, 'It may take us a while but we will eventually catch up with you.' This isn't going to change the operational capacity for al-Qaida, but the deeply symbolic nature of it affects the American consciousness and people overseas that we can and will do that sort of thing."

Thus, the U.S. has asserted itself as being strong and powerful enough to carry out such targeted missions, he said.

With bin Laden gone as a "rallying point" for extremism, Turner said, democratic protest movements are also bolstered in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and beyond.

"The move and push for democracy has shown that people clearly aren't interested in the bill of goods Osama was selling. They essentially repudiated him," Turner said.

--Scott Monroe

"I think the big piece we have here is that kids are aware. Number two, they do have an opinion," said Steve Ouellette, principal of Madison Area Memorial High School.

Some students reacted to the news of bin Laden's death even before Barbara Moody began a discussion in her American history class at Madison high school on Monday afternoon.

"Bam. That's one for America," said Derek Conners, 17, of Madison, sitting at his desk in the 12-student class. The high school juniors then launched into a 30-minute discussion about the details of the U.S. killing of bin Laden.

Moody showed her class two news broadcasts: one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describing how U.S. relations with Pakistan helped in the attack and another by a CBS news crew asking how it was possible Pakistan didn't know bin Laden was there.

"We need to keep an active eye on things happening between the U.S. and Pakistan," Moody said, preparing her students for future discussions.

"It's a big relief for the U.S., but it's not over by far," said student Nate Gross, 17, of Skowhegan, at the end of class.

At Winslow High School, juniors spent the first half-hour of an American government class discussing the news about bin Laden. Teacher Michael Thurston told the class he only learned about the news Monday morning.

Nearly every one of his students said in unison that they learned of the news on Facebook.

Student Conner Bourgoin kicked things off because the topic of bin Laden was his pre-scheduled "big idea" topic for the class. Bourgoin relayed the latest details he could find, while saying that the government and U.S. embassies had heightened security alerts in the aftermath.

"Some will see him as a martyr and riot," Bourgoin said. "But I think most countries are on America's side."

Student Sara Poirier said bin Laden's death seems to have brought relief to many, but she worried about the potential for retaliatory attacks and whether images of Americans celebrating bin Laden's death could backfire.

"It could be a reason to fight back. It scares me," Poirier said.

Asked "what does this mean?" by Thurston, student Pierce Ducker downplayed bin Laden as a "figurehead" for al-Qaida.

"The real war is in the minds of people to join his cause," Ducker said, though he thought bin Laden's death would make it harder for al-Qaida to recruit more terrorists.

"Yeah, symbol-less," Thurston replied. "That's an excellent analysis, really."

Thurston marveled that the 9/11 attacks happened nearly a decade ago, when his students were six or seven years old. Even at that age, several students said they remember that day. One student recalled reciting the "Hail Mary" prayer at St. John's Catholic School, while another recalled reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

John Churchill was talking to a class of high school fire fighters Monday morning about bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks.

The 51-year-old fire instructor for Foster Technology Center in Farmington said the junior firefighters, with ages from 16 to 18, don't have the same connection as older members of the fire department.

"I'm teaching high school kids, and they understand and know about it, but they weren't firefighters when it happened," Churchill said of the 9/11 attacks and military action that followed.

At Waterville Senior High School, students discussed bin Laden in their classes, and one student was talking about it as he entered the school in the morning. "One student walked by and said, 'It's a great day to be an American,'" said Principal Don Reiter.

Lynda Letteney, principal of Mt. View High School in Thorndike, said each classroom has a SMART board that could tune in to TV news if teachers wished.

However, "The reality is most of these kids were in first grade or less when (9/11) happened," she said. "I don't think it's nearly the big deal for this age group as it is for people who are out of school."

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