9/11 remembered and lessons about oversimplified debate

The call came sometime around 6:40 a.m. Arizona time, waking me out of a sound sleep. My dad’s voice on the other end of the line told me that airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center and that the Pentagon was on fire.

I jumped out of bed and turned on the television set in my college dorm room. Smoke billowed out of the World Trade Center. Not knowing what else to do, I rushed to the shower and quickly dressed. I returned to my room just in time to watch the first tower collapse. As a sophomore at Northern Arizona University and member of the debate team, my first stop that morning was the debate squad room. A few teammates and I watched the news coverage, barely able to process the unfolding events.

I remember the rest of the day in bits and pieces. I attended my 9:35 a.m. world politics class. We watched television in stunned silence. Some of my classmates cried. I attended an outdoor vigil late that afternoon. But the part I remember most was that we held debate team practice as scheduled. In retrospect, it may sound callous that we proceeded with debate so soon after a national tragedy. But it was our attempt to make sense of what had just happened and the first sign that life as we knew it would somehow continue.

Unlike cable news shows where hyperpartisan talking heads interrupt each other or shout with the intention of destroying their opponents, competitive debate is based on informed reason-giving and involves complex rules for evaluating evidence. All ideas are carefully scrutinized and can be subject to refutation. Most crucially, the winner of a debate round is determined not by who provides the best insults or rhetorical flourish, but rather, which side’s evidence and reasoning is most able to withstand scrutiny. 

In the months and years after 9/11, competitive debate tackled the same questions debated in public: which, if any, changes to domestic security policy were justified? Should the United States take military action against Afghanistan, or later, Iraq? I didn’t always agree with the actions taken by the Bush administration in the years that followed 9/11, but competitive debate taught me that public policy is more nuanced than taking simplistic yes/no positions. For example, to engage in a competitive debate round about Afghanistan, a student would need to understand not only the 9/11 attack itself, but how political history and theories of international relations shape policymaking choices and eventual outcomes.

Twenty years later, we find ourselves in another moment of national crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 4.5 million lives worldwide, including 649,000 Americans. Public debates about COVID-19 seem intractable when opposing sides struggle to agree on even basic material facts or premises about the nature of reality. In light of events like the January 6 riot at the U.S Capitol or scenes of mask opponents screaming at school board meetings, it can feel like debate has become passé. But I still believe debate is important, perhaps now more than ever.

As it did 20 years ago, competitive debate continues to provide a space where students learn to engage in nuanced arguments that will in turn help them become effective citizens in their own communities. Take the issue of vaccines. Despite widespread scientific consensus that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, public opinion polls show that as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population is hesitant to take the vaccine. As a strong proponent of vaccines, I’m often taken aback by this hesitancy. Yet as Penn State College of Medicine professor Bernice L. Hausman has shown in her research, public deliberation about vaccines is most productive when we recognize that vaccine hesitancy reflects a more complicated cluster of beliefs than a binary pro/con position would suggest. When we engage with the specific objections of vaccine-hesitant individuals, we may open space for more productive dialogue. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree that vaccine skeptics are right; rather, the point is that we should keep talking with them.

There will no doubt be more disagreements in the years ahead about which public policies are best for an uncertain future. We can learn from competitive debate that such disagreements are best resolved when we resist the siren song of simplistic either/or thinking. By recognizing nuance, the United States can recover from crises like 9/11 and COVID-19. 

Benjamin Krueger is a teaching assistant professor of communication studies and assistant debate team coach at UNR. The views expressed are his own.