Last Night, I Told My 6-Year-Old about 9/11

We live near a very large Marine base, and, as a result, quite a large percentage of the children at my son's elementary school are family members of military personnel. Though we are not a military family, ourselves, my oldest son is becoming aware of those who serve and is learning to respect and thank those men and women.

There are many questions I've started to dread as N gets older, not knowing how I will answer them or how he'll react to those answers. So last night, when he suddenly asked me about "the war" we're in, I was both prepared and unprepared to answer him.

To me, and to many of you, I'm sure, the "wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan are not history. They are real, ongoing pieces of our lives, events that have shaped the way we see the world. I was 20 on 9/11/01, and I remember that day vividly. September 11, to me, is not history.

But to him, it is. It's abstract. It's in that hazy time "before I was born." He has never lived in a world in which 9/11 didn't happen. He has never lived in a world in which the United States was not involved in two wars in faraway lands.

He asked me what we're fighting about, and I had to, in a split second, decide how to explain it to him.

I decided to be honest without getting too political, to tell him straight without getting into too much detail. Frankly, I wasn't sure what parts of the story would upset or disturb him. What I didn't realize is that because he wasn't there, because it's not a part of his personal history, he doesn't and never will have the same emotional reaction as we did upon hearing the news that terrible morning.

I remember September 11, 2001 vividly. I remember my reaction and the reactions of friends and professors. I remember the peace rally at my college that afternoon. I remember students glued to the TV in the Campus Center, watching the 24-hour CNN coverage. I remember being dazed for weeks afterward, as the government tried to sort out what actually happened, as victims' bodies were recovered, as the casualty count rose, as the stories of heroism at the World Trade Center site from the first responders and bystanders and from the passengers on Flight 93 who crashed the plane into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I remember realizing that the world, my world, had changed. That America was no longer untouched or untouchable.

As I started to explain what happened that day, and what led the United States to become involved in wars in two other countries, I found that the telling came more easily than I expected and that N wasn't as affected by my words as I expected. I told him that some bad men who hated America took some planes and crashed them into two tall buildings in New York City, that those buildings had fallen down, and that many people were killed. I told him that these bad men also crashed a plane into the Pentagon, and I explained what the Pentagon was. And I told him of those passengers on Flight 93, who caused the plane to crash in an empty field instead of a building. His response to that startled me. "They sacrificed themselves," he began, and I assumed he meant the passengers, until he continued, "to kill us?" He was talking about the terrorists. He suddenly realized that those men had killed themselves in the process of killing us, and that, he couldn't fathom. Frankly, neither can I.

I waited to make sure he wasn't upset or anxious by what I had told him so far, and then I continued, moving on to explain how President Bush wanted to find out who had done such a thing to our country, and when he decided that the bad people had come from a country called Afghanistan, he sent our military there to change things. I told him briefly about how Iraq had a leader who did terrible things to the people of his country, and that the president thought he might have weapons that could harm us. I told him that the president sent in our soldiers to change the government there, because he believed that if these two countries had democratic governments, their people would have better lives. I tried not to let too much of my own political beliefs influence the telling; it's just too complicated for a six-year-old, and I will want him one day to be able to form his own opinions, with the benefit of historical hindsight. I asked him if he was upset by anything I had told him, and he said the only thing that really bothered him was that there were still people being killed there every day. I told him it was good that he was upset about that, because it will make him remember that there is still fighting going on. I told him to think about how those men and women chose to serve their country, to fight these wars, so that his daddy and his uncle (the only two men close to him who would have been of fighting age) wouldn't have to. I told him to thank those men and women, and to thank his friends who have family members over there, for making that choice so that we don't have to.

It occurred to me today that the way he will grow up seeing 9/11 is much the way I perceive, for example, Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination. I've heard about it, and I can understand that people were devastated. But I didn't live it. I didn't experience the world shifting the way they did. For my generation, 9/11 is that world-shifting event. I hope to G-d that my kids don't have to move forward with a memory like that, and I fear what might bring such an awareness into their fragile, safe worlds.

I envy him his bubble of safety, his ability to see events as historical rather than immediate. But that won't last. The only comfort I have is knowing that I can share events with him, that I will understand how he will be affected by the shattering of how he believes the world to be.

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