I Am a History Teacher, and I Lie to My Students

On Sept. 30, 2011, I woke up and began my daily routine, preparing for another day of teaching history to high school students. In the course of an average school year, I literally teach the history of the world — ancient history, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modernity. My 11th-grade students take U.S. history, a required course for any student who plans to graduate.

In that class, we spent a great amount of time going, nearly line by line, through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I tell them that nothing else in U.S. history matters as much as their understanding of these documents. The Constitution is what protects us, guides us, and rules us as a people. The Bill of Rights, I say, guarantees that government does not overstep the bounds laid out for it by the Founding Fathers. Those amendments help protect our dignity, our liberty, and our lives.

I am lying to them…

What I tell them about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is true, but I fear that, for them and their children (and my own children), these wonderful documents will rank with the other insignificant dates and dead people of history. The Founding Fathers will simply be dead guys who had a pretty good idea a few centuries ago.

The proof of this depressing claim is legion, from unconstitutional government programs and departments, to the tyrannical taxes levied against us, to the undeclared wars and “selective service” that will likely take some of the young men in my classes to die in foreign nations (even before they are allowed to drink beer). Yes, all these things show it quite clearly.

Our government has trampled what my students memorize, and the rights of the people continue to diminish in shameful ways. But surely none can be more shocking than what I witnessed on that morning of Sept. 30. As I drank coffee and ate breakfast, I took a moment to catch up on the morning news. Fox News led the nation in rejoicing with a “Breaking News” segment that celebrated the death of alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

Awlaki was killed by a drone attack in Yemen and, as the Associated Press later reported, he was the intended target of the attack. Another man, Samir Khan, was also killed in the bombing. Both were U.S. citizens.

According to the same article, Awlaki was the suspected mastermind of several terrorist plots, including “the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of a U.S.-bound aircraft. The official said that al-Awlaki specifically directed the men accused of trying to bomb the Detroit-bound plane to detonate an explosive device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties.”

Born in New Mexico, Awlaki was never charged with any crime and never received a trial, and though the military could pinpoint his exact location, there was no actual attempt to arrest him.

I reflect over the lies I have told: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (5th Amendment).

Samir Khan, from my own state of North Carolina, was not an intended target, but he did produce a magazine that gave instructions on how to use bombs and weapons, and, the Associated Press assures us, it was read by lots of people. He happened to be in the same caravan of vehicles as Awlaki, so he too was killed. Guilt by association, I guess.

More lies: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence” (6th Amendment).

But, the bloggers and commentators bellow out, these men were terrorists! They relinquished their rights of citizenship when they turned against us!

The government can take one’s citizenship when he breaks the law?

There can be little doubt that these men committed treason, so I breathe a momentary sigh of relief. Perhaps I haven’t completely been dishonest with my students? “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” (Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution). If only the framers had stopped there.

The next sentence makes me face another round of lies: “No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

The attack has been heralded as “the latest in a run of high-profile kills for Washington under President Barack Obama.” Kills for Washington? What will my students think?

There can be little doubt that were Khan and Awlaki apprehended and tried, they would have either been found guilty or confessed in open court. But they were not tried. They were not charged. They weren’t even apprehended and waterboarded. They were killed by an armed drone. Killed for Washington.

Citizens and political leaders throughout the nation are and will continue to rejoice over these fresh kills, and the deaths of these men will be used for political capital. It is election season, after all. Yes, the same ones who swear to uphold the Constitution will make a name for themselves by assassinating American citizens. Does my dishonesty know no bounds?

Any right given to the government is one less right retained by the citizens. I can hear the room of 17-year-olds reciting the 10th Amendment. What will become of them when their government defines “bad men” a bit differently?

I climb into my car and make the short drive to school where I must live another day with the realization that I am a history teacher… and I lie to my students. Perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, they will be the ones to lift the veil. Perhaps by remembering what all others seem to have forgotten, they can reclaim what their elders are seeking to rob.

Author: Dr. Brian Phillips

Dr. Brian Phillips is a history, philosophy, and rhetoric teacher and serves as the pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Church in Concord, N.C. You can read more of his writings at Truth and Culture and may e-mail him at brianw_phillips@yahoo.com.