[I wrote this piece a year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I thought about it again today, on the 11th anniversary, after a remarkable Twitter conversation with my friend Esma (@ThundarKitteh on Twitter), an Arab American who always has a brilliant perspective on things. This post is about discussing the tragedy with my kids, who were very young at the time, and that explains why September 11 stays with me the way it does. At the same time, though, I agree wholeheartedly with Esma’s comments on Twitter today that our reminiscences often border on exploitation of the tragedy rather than honoring the dead, and that the United States compounded the tragedy of September 11 by launching two unnecessary wars and demonizing Arabs, the people of the Middle East and North Africa, and Muslims in general. As she said: “Life of a civilian in the US = Life of a civilian in Afghanistan = Life of a civilian in Iraq. PERIOD.”]
Yes, it is overkill as a matter of fact. This constant stream of news stories and reminiscences, this obsession with the calamity of September 11, 2001, is complete overkill. Local DJ Lin Brehmer (no ordinary DJ, mind you) refers to our remembrances of days like this as “nega-versaries,” the anniversaries of tragedies that seem to captivate Americans like nothing else.
It’s overkill, but to some extent it’s unavoidable … because we do remember events like September 11 whether we want to or not; and those memories are keener on anniversaries of the event and, I guess, keener still on bigger, “rounder” anniversaries like the fifth and tenth anniversaries. That it seems illogical doesn’t make it less real: We’re hardwired to think there’s something especially significant or poignant about the ten year anniversary of September 11, and to pretend we’re not is an exercise in futility.
So with apologies to my friends who are sick and tired of hearing about it, there’s something about September 11 that I feel the need to recall and to write about today, and I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Because this is a part of the September 11 story that doesn’t get much attention: The way the events of that day affected parents of young children and, more importantly, those young kids themselves. It’s not as gripping as the stories of the first responders, nor as tragic as the stories of those who died and those who lost family members and friends. I’m not trying to compete with those stories; I’m only saying that for someone like me – the father of five and three year old boys at the time – the events of that day presented a unique challenge; and for our boys, who are now 15 and 13, and our daughter, now 9, who was born two months later, the September 11 attacks and what followed may have an effect that’s even harder to fathom.
Harder to fathom, but not altogether unfamiliar.
Anyway, the thing is this: On September 11 and for the next few days, my wife and I did everything we could to shelter our boys from the news, because that’s not really the kind of thing a five and a three year old boy should have to deal with. But we knew we couldn’t keep the story from them for very long, especially because our older boy, Paul, had just started kindergarten at the elementary school down the street and there was virtually no way to prevent him from overhearing older kids or adults talking about it. Moreover, on that Friday, September 14, Paul’s school held an assembly for the kids to address what had happened. The younger kids were spared the gory details, but they were asked to make paper doves for the assembly and they did play some role in it. So at a minimum, Paul was bound to have heard something about the attacks by the end of that week.
It also happened that on that Friday night my wife had plans to meet some friends downtown, and so I was alone with the boys that evening. So after dinner as the three of us were sitting in the boys’ room playing with Legos or whatever, I decided I had to talk to them about what had happened and what they knew. I asked them if they’d heard anything about people getting hurt in New York City earlier in the week. They both looked at me with blank stares. I tried again, asking if they’d heard about a building catching fire or anything like that. Still nothing. So then I asked, “What about a plane crash?”
“Oh, yeah,” Paul said. Mark, our three year old, said nothing. By this point, I thought he’d pretty much lost interest in the conversation.
But Paul went on: “Yeah, I heard about that. But the good thing is, the bad guys got killed too.”
Now bear in mind, he’s five years old at the time. He sees pretty much everything through the prism of superheroes and children’s cartoons and black-and-white good-versus-evil, and so none of this had any real meaning to him. “The bad guys got killed” just means some sort of justice was served, some loose ends of the storyline got tied up. No big deal.
But as we were sitting there, I recalled something I’d read earlier in a special edition of the Chicago Tribune that was published on the evening of September 11 and distributed to every household in the area. In one article, a Tribune reporter had asked various religious leaders for their reaction to the attacks, and Greek Orthodox priest – I wish I knew his name – made the most remarkable observation I had heard at the time. He said in addition to the horrific loss of innocent life, people should mourn the deaths of the highjackers, too, because they were children of God like everybody else; they came into this world as innocent souls and somewhere along the line they were lost. And that loss was tragic too.
Even if you take the religious overtones out of it, the priest had a point. These young men weren’t born highjackers and murders. They were born human beings like the rest of us. They went astray, of course; somehow and for whatever reason the learned to hate and they learned to kill; but they weren’t born that way. Somehow, between birth and death, they lost their way. And that was sad, too.
So that Friday night, sitting in my boys’ room with the world still not making any sense, I tried to convey that idea to my five year old son. I said, no, really it’s not a good thing that the bad guys died too. I said they weren’t always bad guys, but at some point in their lives they turned to bad ideas; they started out good and became bad. And if they hadn’t gone through with the attacks; if, for some reason, they decided at the last minute that they weren’t going to kill innocent people – or if they just chickened out, or got caught – maybe there was a chance that they could come around, that they could learn that whatever grievance they felt they had against whomever the felt they had it, it didn’t justify the wonton murder of thousands of innocent people. Maybe they could have been saved, somehow. So their dying, on top of the thousands of innocent people who died that day, really wasn’t a good thing after all.
I don’t know if that made any sense to Paul. He seemed to understand, at least on some level, but I couldn’t really tell. As for Mark, I’m fairly sure all of this was over his head. But as Paul and I were talking about this, Mark climbed into my lap and held on to me. He knew there was something deadly serious going on, even if he didn’t know what it was.
Did all of this make any difference? I don’t know. All I can tell you is, I did the best I could under the circumstances.
But what’s always bothered me about that day and the events that happened over the next couple of years is this: I realized then that the events of September 11 and what followed were going to be for my kids what Vietnam was for me. Having been born in 1962, I grew up with Vietnam. It was everywhere I looked when I was little. When I was five or six years old, Vietnam dominated every news broadcast on television or radio; it dominated every conversation my parents and older siblings had; it was on the front page of every newspaper and every magazine. There were images of the war everywhere, and even as a young kid I knew that people were fighting and dying overseas every day. And I knew there was a risk that my older brothers could get drafted and might have to go to fight in Vietnam.
And maybe worse than all that, I learned at a very early age that there were serious doubts about the morality and the justification for the war in Vietnam.
I wonder if the architects of Vietnam ever thought about that: That my generation was the first generation in American history to have to ask, at a very early age, whether our country was engaged in an illegal and unjustified war; whether our country had betrayed its most sacred principles. Yes, our country had made grave mistakes before – just ask Native Americans – but most people learn about those things when they’re older, maybe in high school or so, and are better able to balance the good things in our history with the bad. But because Vietnam was ubiquitous in the late 1960s, my generation grew up questioning from a very early age whether our government had ginned up an excuse to wage a war in a foreign country in violation of everything we were supposed to believe in.
So I worry whether in the years since September 11 we’ve bequeathed that same horrible thing on my kids’ generation. After all, the wars that followed the September 11 attacks are more or less all they know, and at least in the case of Iraq the same awful questions linger.
I grew up feeling like a part of my youth had been stolen from me by a government that was willing to lie the country into war in Southeast Asia. Now I have to ask whether we’ve done the same thing to my kids’ generation.
“Let the living let us in before the dead tear us apart.”
[Pictured at the top: Students from St. Joan of Arc School in Lisle, Illinois, forming a human peace sign on September 9, 2011, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.]