Last fall, my eight-year-old son Owen came home from school with a lot of questions about September 11th. We had never discussed it. I guess I never thought he was old enough to hear about it. They had been talking about it in school and he had a lot of questions. I did my best to answer them. I fought back tears and tried to explain what happened on that day. I did about as well as any parent would do considering how unprepared I was to discuss something so difficult—which is to say badly. I can only hope I handle the birds and the bees talk better than I handled the September 11th talk.
When I was in eighth grade, we had an assignment to ask our parents if they could remember what they were doing when they heard the news of JFK’s assassination. On September 11, 2001, I thought to myself, someday my kids are going to ask me what I was doing today. I remember every detail of that day—the perfect clear blue of the sky, watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center live on television in the trading room of the investment firm where I worked, wondering if any of my former classmates were among the thousands running in terror from ground zero (there were several), watching one particular stock broker I had always thought of as heartless falling apart as he watched, seeing a woman in the same wine-colored suit I was wearing as I walked from Cambridge to South Station because I was afraid get on the subway, and trying to call my parents from my cell phone for the entire walk. Ten years later, I still cry when I think about it.
Knowing that the death of Osama bin Laden was likely to be discussed at school on Monday, I thought we’d talk a little bit about it before hand. A few years back, Owen had seen a brief scene on the news of American forces in the mountains of Afghanistan. He couldn’t have been more than five or six years old at the time, “Mommy, what are the Army guys doing in the mountains?” he asked me.
“There is a man who did a very bad thing before you were born,” I told him. “Those soldiers are looking for him.”
“I want to help them find him,” he told me.
“You have to be eighteen to join the army. They’ll probably find him before then.” I said.
Since Owen never forgets anything (except things like homework and putting his dirty laundry in the hamper), I knew he’d recall that conversation. So on the walk to the bus stop this morning I asked, “Owen, do you remember asking me about the soldiers in the mountains?”
“The ones looking for the bad guy?”
“Yes. His name is Osama bin Laden. They found him and now he’s dead. I thought it might come up at school today and I thought we should talk about it. A lot of people are very happy he’s dead. But I don’t think it’s okay to celebrate someone’s death.” Of course, I started tearing up.
“Are you crying because he’d dead or because of what he did?”
“I’m crying about what he did. I wouldn’t celebrate his death, but it doesn’t make me sad either. He caused the death of thousands of Americans and we’ve been looking for him for a long time.”
“What did he do?”
“Do you remember learning about September 11th? That was his idea.”
He asked me a lot of questions—really good questions. Sadly, I didn’t have answers for all of them. I doubt anyone does. By the time we reached the bus stop, we were both a little teary. I said to him, “There is something I always want you to remember Owen. There are some bad people in the world. But for every single person who is willing to do something this awful, there are a hundred people who are willing to put themselves in danger to save someone’s life. That’s what we need to focus on and be grateful for.”
I hope the end of the search for bin Laden brings closure and comfort to those who need it. I am relieved that the search for this embodiment of evil is over. I hope this means some of our troops can come home to a grateful nation. But I won’t celebrate this news. I’d like to share this quote a friend (who is a New Yorker to the core) posted on Facebook yesterday:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” MLK Jr.