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Opinion & Essays - October, 2001 Issue #86 


By Lon Woodbury

The whirlpool of negative and angry thinking in those that planned and carried out the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 is uncomfortably familiar to those of us working with emotional growth and therapeutic schools and programs. Some of the children with whom we work are angry, resentful, perceive authority as hypocritical and have fanatic, idealistic ideas about the way the world should be. In their own adolescent way they lash out at society to right some perceived wrong, just like the attitudes those Terrorists demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2001.

Seeing a parallel between Terrorists and some of the angry adolescents we encounter is not a new observation! Every now and then I work with parents who have described their own child as a “Little Terrorist.” I observe similar remarks on my website’s discussion board. These parents appear to be referring to an angry adolescent’s ability to manipulate, threaten and sometimes lash out with violence against their family members or members of the community. As a result, mothers are turned against fathers, families are divided, siblings flee or want to, communities are divided, and all live in fear. The fear developed in a family from a “Little Terrorist” is, on a national scale, the goal of Terrorists. The source is very similar and lies in the character of the individuals involved.

Character is defined in the dictionary as the qualities that define a person’s moral and ethical behavior. Good character is generally considered to include attributes such as responsibility, fairness, tolerance, restraint and reliance upon persuasion instead of violence. It might be called, “Doing the right thing.” It is people with this type of character who define a mature civilized adult and this type of character is considered the ideal a civilized society should aspire to teach it’s young. And, all of us know from our own childhood just how hard the lessons can be that teach us these ideals. This is due at least in part because a person doesn’t generally develop good character without effort on the part of adults. The opposite of these attributes of good character is what defines Terrorists, and “Little Terrorists.”

Character Counts! When trying to understand the human motivations of the Sept. 11, 2001 Terrorists, it is obvious that primary aspects of their personality were contrary to what we esteem as good character. Tolerance, restraint and reliance on persuasion were not part of their education, but sadly the reverse, with tragic and deadly results.

There are other areas where character, or rather poor character, counts to create a heartbreaking outcome. Those behind the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City were of the same mind set as the Sept. 11, 2001 Terrorists. The same is the case with our homegrown gangs and radical hate groups who rely on violence and terror to feed their ambition or fanatical cause. For all of these, Character Counted; unfortunately any character education they received either didn’t take, or was of the wrong kind, resulting in tragedy.

There is a brighter side to the events of September 11, 2001. Character counted in the passengers of the fourth hi-jacked plane who forced it to crash in Pennsylvania short of its target. It counted when causing thousands of Americans to risk their lives rushing to the aid of the victims of the bombings, and it counted for the many thousands more who donated blood, money, food and clothing for the victims. Character indeed counted in these millions of Americans, who had learned the lesson of doing the “right thing” as civilized, mature adults.

Character also counts for our country’s leaders in this “War on Terrorists.” Can they exercise the restraint, tolerance and wisdom that come from good character? Will they promote justice and prevent future terrorist tragedies? Or will they vent emotional vengeance that could result in creating even more terrorist enemies or overreact in their restriction of our civil liberties?

There was a debate this last decade where some seemed to be saying that adherence to the right policies to meet the needs of the people was more important than the personal character of our leaders. Now that we have moved from a time of relative peace and tranquility to a type of war footing, it is obvious that the safety and quality of our future to a large extent rests on the restraint, tolerance and wisdom of our leaders. In other words, our future depends on how good their character is.

That Character Counts should be a goal of our education system is even more obvious, now that we have such an example on Sept. 11, 2001 of what can be done to us by people with the wrong kind of character. Although character education is not a solution in dealing with the current hardened terrorists, it should be a goal for schools that deal with impressionable young people who have not yet grown up emotionally. When an emotional growth or therapeutic or character education academy, school or program enrolls a “Little Terrorist,” we have the opportunity of denying a future recruit to the whirlwind of emotional negativity upon which all brands of terrorism rely. Success in this endeavor can help to create a more secure future for us all.

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