Advice columns, self-help books, blogs…they all say that when talking to your children about difficult issues to remember that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” And I don’t. I only know I’m glad Maggie is too young to ask.
How do you define for yourself the most defining event of your childhood? And 9/11 was part of my childhood; the girl I was might have disagreed but I don’t think now that seventeen is an adult. When your first real taste of foreign policy is the falling Towers, can you ever fully catch up on the whys? When that event lowers applications at your alma mater, allowing more admissions than years prior and getting your foot in the door of the whiplash-wild world of DC politics, how do you reconcile that? How do you combine joy for all that you’ve experienced when you were told by a guidance counselor that without the drop in applications, you may not have been admitted at all? When your partner’s education and job are defined by the post-9/11 world but provide you a life better than one you could have dreamed of, is joy permissible? Is it acceptable to delight in a life that in its happiness and triumphs has, in ways both obvious and subtle, been painted by the deaths of thousands of people both home and abroad? And more simply, can you answer “Why? Why did it happen at all?”
I think so. And I don’t think so. I don’t know. I don’t know.
When I woke up to this morning’s news about Osama bin Laden, at first I was up: “All right! Nailed the bastard.” Then down: “So, people are screaming ‘USA! USA!’ in the streets. That’s…gross.” Then furious: the Fox News coverage all but denying that President Obama even exists, let alone gave the command to carry out the attack; people trying to claim this was a victory for Bush (WTF?); people claiming that “credit” was being distributed in unequal portions–screaming “It’s the soldiers!” “It’s Obama” (dudes, it’s EVERYONE, these things do not happen in a vacuum); people interpreting Proverbs and other holy verses from the East and the West to passively identify their own feelings. I moved on to exhaustion and sadness: this is the violent epilogue to a ten-year-old story, one of the last splashes of red ink on a book already soaked in blood.
Finally, I settled into a shade of gray: I am not happy that he’s dead, but I’m not unhappy either. I have seen those who were the friends and family members of 9/11 victims say that they have found a measure of peace today; I have also seen it written by witnesses in Manhattan and DC that he should have been made to face us. Nobody is wrong.
I’m proud of our leaders, analysts and soldiers for carrying out the mission so well and efficiently with no US casualties. But I’m less proud and more saddened by the thirst and hatred I’ve seen all over the internet today: “It wasn’t enough.” “He died too well, he should have suffered more.” “He should have been tortured.” “We should have desecrated his body.” Well do I understand the need for peace and closure, and a primal part of me did initially cheer at bin Laden’s passing, but I will not glorify in disrespecting the dead. He was an evil murderer of thousands, but I will not stoop to wishing that we indulged in his level of inhumanity and indignity.
For my daughter, my unborn child, and for my own conscience, I will not delight in savagery.
Which brings me to my next point. As I said above, I’m glad Maggie is too young to understand. I have a few more years before she starts asking questions about current events and maybe I’ll have some kind of response. But I remember interviewing my grandparents for history projects, which I desperately wish I could find, asking about Pearl Harbor and WWII and Korea. At the other end of decades past, were they able to reconcile their feelings? I know they answered me well and honestly; did it feel that way to them in their hearts? Had they found for themselves a satisfactory answer to the question “Why? Why did it happen?”
One day our children are going to ask us those same questions about 9/11, and bin Laden, and oh, God, whatever horrors may come next. They’re going to ask “Why?” and it’s right that they should ask. I pray for children who never stop asking that question and who always seek answers. I only hope by then I’ll have formed answers in my own heart; at the very least, I hope that my actions and values in raising them speak louder about war, peace, dignity, death, and humanity than the only stumbling answer I have right now:
I don’t know. I don’t know.