Raising a Child in the Age of Terrorism
Photo: DVIDSHUB/Creative Commons
A couple days after 9/11, I went with my then-boyfriend, now my husband, to a public gathering on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the famous walkway that looks across the East River toward lower Manhattan, from the Statue of Liberty up to midtown. There was a hole in the sky filled with thick smoke, reeking of burning plastic. My boyfriend had not long before found a piece of Cantor Fitzgerald letterhead in his Brooklyn garden.
Walking toward the river, I ran into a neighbor who was six months pregnant.
"What a time to be having a baby," she said. "How do you bring a life into this?"
The Uncertainty of Safety
As I type this post late Sunday night, May 1, I am watching the coverage of Osama bin Laden's death. I feel deeply moved by the reactions of my fellow New Yorkers, growing numbers of them who are converging onto Ground Zero — some to celebrate; others to honor the fallen, the rescue workers, and the rebuilding. I hope that, even though bin Laden's death does not bring back the lives of those lost on 9/11 and during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, perhaps it provides an element of closure their loved ones have been looking for. I feel relief that our world is free of one less diabolical maniac.
But I do not feel safer. And I do not feel that my child is safer.
On 9/11, I walked home across the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of New Yorkers, many of them coated in dust and debris, and still saw men and women bearing anti-American sentiments openly cheering the attacks, dancing on the sidewalks. Just because Osama bin Laden is gone does not mean that terrorism is eradicated, that hatred of our way of life is a memory, and that our sense of security is restored. Bin Laden was not our only threat. It doesn't take much to piss off a terrorist, and many of them live in our cities. So I hope our country can continue to protect us, as bin Laden's followers will most certainly attempt to avenge his death. (They're always avenging something, of course. I find it hard to imagine how this mission made them even more mad, because how mad can a person get? How do you up the ante of "death to all"?) So maybe we're no less safe than we were on Saturday because the threat is always there, but we can only imagine that the death does ratchet up a certain motivation.
Since 9/11, we've learned that anything can happen. I have never been an alarmist, I'm no militant, and I certainly don't think that going after bin Laden was a bad thing. But I admit to being nervous. On 9/11 I wasn't a mom. I am now. I'm nervous in an entirely different way today than I was then.
Keeping It Together
When my husband and I interviewed the woman who runs the daycare that we ultimately chose for our now-13-month-old son, she explained to us the late-pickup fees. "But if something happens, of course we would stay here until you could get here and we would not charge you," she said. "Another blackout, or, uh, an attack."
Making concessions for these things has become part of daily arrangements, and it occurred to my pregnant self back in 2009: What if I could not get to my child? On 9/11, it took me roughly four hours to walk home, but now I wonder: How did parents handle that separation? What hell must a four-hour walk through destruction have been for somebody trying to get to her family? Several cell phone company antennae went down with the Towers; what if you could not call daycare or your babysitter?
Or, a more universal question: How do you explain such evil to a child when your most important role as a parent is to make your family feel safe?
I hope I can shelve my own fears and cynicism in order to teach my son that in addition to trusting his own street smarts (once he gets them), he has to trust faith in the military and law enforcement — though not blindly — because that's often all the general public has. I know I will teach him that there is so much good in the world, that there are countless people who are working in large and small ways to keep us safe from the insanity of the violent few. I will educate him so he is baffled by hatred, especially the kind found in our own backyards. I will reassure him that even though it may take Mommy or Daddy a few hours to come home, we will always come for him (a thing I cannot promise but must say). And I will sit down with his father and we will devise a plan, so far as we can, for a situation in which one or both of us cannot reach our son. A horrible task.
All of this requires a sense of idealism I do not have but must drum up for him. Parents do that a lot.
The War at Home
There's been a lot of debate about how appropriate it may or may not have been for crowds to celebrate the death of a man, however deserved that death is. I'm finding the Facebook status updates from parents interesting, many of which voice concerns about what example cheering this event sets for our kids. Are we reinforcing the idea of good vs. evil, and that violent killing is a call for joy if we deem the person "bad enough"? Does it depend on where you stand on the capital punishment issue?
If Osama bin Laden will be to our younger children who Hitler, on a certain level, is to us — a historical figure who came to overwhelming power and did the unspeakable, destroying our cities, our families — then perhaps the best response is to express to our kids how Hitler's death is often described to us: with relief, in tandem with the lessons we hope the world learns from it.
Armies cannot defeat fundamentalist ideology, so, sadly, we're stuck with these yahoos. But you can bring your version of peace to your world at home. If that's the peace your child understands, then you'll have won that war.
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