Parenting

Talking to My Son About the 9/11 Attacks

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AP Images

On September 11, 2010, we were in Hampshire, England, to attend an arbitration conference for my husband. We only had the older children with us. My son was five years old and was in Year 1 (first grade) at his London school. Our eldest daughter had just turned four. Jim was downstairs doing the cocktail network circuit. I was attending to the children’s dinner before the sitter arrived. Cool mom that I sometimes can be, I had allowed them room service pizza and a movie in bed. It was a hotel, with kiddy robes, and mom was letting them watch TV. They were happy.

While they watched and ate, I started to get lost in my laptop. On the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we seemed to be allowed to look at the images again. If readers recall, and I’m sure most do, the day and the days after were full of the images. But by the first anniversary, media was trying to make the public less angry. They stopped using the images. That trend continued for years. Commemorate, but don’t really remember. Don’t feel. Too many triggers.

While I can no longer recall the specific examples illustrating the change, year nine seemed different. Or maybe it was year eight when people got fed up with forced forgetfulness and I knew the coverage would be better this year. Whichever, I got lost in reading that evening. We were allowed to remember.

At some point, Patrick, my 5 year old, got out of the bed. He stood behind me. I didn’t think much of it.

The year before, Reception (Kindergarten), he had not learned to read. He was doing just enough sight words and sounding out that his teacher and I chose not to worry. She was an experienced teacher. She suspected that he was just one of those boys—usually it is a boy—who would read late. She told me that if she was right, then his reading mastery might happen very quickly. I told her that is exactly what had happened with his verbal skills. At 18 months he had just the number of words that his pediatrician didn’t worry, but told me to watch. By 22 months he started talking. By 25 months, he was into paragraphs and on his way to oration. And oh boy, is he verbal now.

But back in 2010, for his reading the teachers and Jim and I tried not to worry. School had started a few weeks prior, and while most of his friends were moving on to chapter books, he was still struggling with Ladybird readers. (Dick and Jane kind of books.)

Until that September 11th evening. As I read—maybe Foreign Policy or TIME, although back then it could’ve been Newsweek; the background was red but it wasn’t Instapundit—he was reading over my shoulder. I thought he was just waiting patiently to ask a question. After a few minutes of making him wait—working on his patience threshold, because that’s what moms do—I turned to him. He was ashen. He was shaking. I jumped up thinking he was sick. Then he asked, “What’s a t-err-o-rist? Where are those buildings that they knocked down today?” I’d been in the middle of the page. Without the introduction, he thought the attacks had just happened.

While I could reassure him this hadn’t just happened, I wasn’t prepared to answer his questions yet. I recall a conversation with myself, “When did he learn to read?” And then another instant of, “Isn’t the sex talk supposed to come first?!” before I rallied. I had assumed I would have more time before we had to have “the talk” about terrorism. I’d naively thought that I’d be able to control when and how he learned some things. But once he could read, that control was gone.

The cross-shaped steel beam that became an emblem of remembrance is on display at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. AP Images.

The cross-shaped steel beam that became an emblem of remembrance is on display at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. AP Images.

I explained that these attacks had happened years ago. He wanted to know what we did about it, were the terrorists still around? More than anything before or since, his questions made me remember that sense of wanting to feel safe again. I remembered needing a plan. Oddly, or maybe not, I recalled then-President Bush’s caution that our struggle against terrorism would be a “lengthy campaign unlike any other.” I pulled up the September 20th address to Congress for him to watch and then texted my husband to get upstairs. We had a situation.

We did a history lesson that night. What happened, how we had responded. We had a harder time explaining what we were doing at the present. He had questions. Those questions became much more furious and informed the next spring when Libya was making news and America was “leading from behind.” I suppose I should just be glad he is not surprising me with his reading skills now, when our premature pullout from Iraq has allowed ISIS to bloom.

We seem to have forgotten what we once knew and accepted.

 Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.

Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.

Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.

Reading these words again this year, they sting, no?