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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Can you see through al-Qaida’s eyes?

Recovery and clean-up crews work at the site

Recovery and clean-up crews work at the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in October 2001. Credit: AP / Stephen Chernin

If nobody had followed Adolf Hitler, if “Mein Kampf” had sold seven copies and he died unknown, it wouldn’t be worth trying to understand his point of view. But because that’s not what happened, it is very much worth trying to glean both Hitler’s perspective and the thinking of his supporters. If you don’t want another Holocaust, it’s good to understand how it happened.

Ditto Osama bin Laden, and everyone in the world who agrees with him now, or might agree with him 50 years on.

So why, exactly, has the following assignment from Iowa State University lecturer James Strohman caused such an uproar this week?

“Write a paper that gives a historical account of 9/11 from the perspective of the terrorist network. In other words, how might al-Qaeda or a non-Western historian describe what happened. Don’t worry about the fact you don’t agree with the terrorists, the point of the exercise is to consider completely different perspectives.”

To nearly all Americans there is no sane justification for the killing of some 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, by supporters of bin Laden. But we know that people who were at least sane enough to plan and carry out a complex blueprint of death and destruction saw it differently. And millions of people in the Middle East, both those who don’t approve of the 9/11 attacks and those who do, also don’t see the United States and its relationship with their region as we do.

Strohman assigned the 500-word essay recently for an international studies course. Then The College Fix, an online publication, got hold of the task and all of a sudden Strohman and his assignment became famous.

Strohman has not responded to media inquiries. In a statement, a university spokesman said it was an exercise in “critical thinking” and seeing events through a “different lens.”

But the story popped on “CBS This Morning” and on Fox News and in scads of publications, with experts quoted on both sides and commenters doing battle on online forums.

It doesn’t seem controversial.

The assignment seems like a useful, even necessary, exercise in perceiving an event from a different point of view, even if that view is evil, to see whether the way the world looks changes when you change the way you look at the world.

And in fairness, unlike Hitler and his followers’ utterly daffy views on Jews, the way angry Middle Easterners see the United States is, while misguided and unproductive, not flat-out crazy, though no one closely impacted on 9/11 can be expected to see that.

We have been engaged in military operations in the Arab world, at varying levels of intensity, practically nonstop since Operation Desert Storm in 1990. We’ve meddled in politics in the region, at varying levels of intensity, practically since World War II, and our allies have done so 100 years longer than that.

How the people who live in that region feel bears thinking about. Even flipping the assignment around for Arab students is worth thinking about: “In March 2017 American airstrikes on Mosul killed 200 civilians. Give a historical account of this from the American point of view. Don’t worry that you don’t agree with the Great Satan.”

If we realized that had we not intervened in 1990 or continued bombing the region for years, 9/11 would not have happened, would we avoid moves like Operation Desert Shield? If it seemed that by not bombing the Middle East now we could avoid the next 9/11, would we change course? It’s at least worth thinking about, right? The points of view we disagree with are the only ones worth really thinking about.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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