By Matthew Hennessey
An entire generation has come of age in the decade since 9/11. For most of them, I imagine, Osama bin Laden haunted their childhood nightmares much the way Hitler once did to children in the 1940s, or Stalin did during the Cold War. I’m sure his death was for many a relief.
But for my seven-year old Clara, bin Laden’s death marked not the end of something but the beginning. She is now old enough that big news gets through to her, either from habitual eavesdropping on her parents’ conversations or from that hotbed of misinformation and half-truths known as the second-grade school bus.
However it was that she came by the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed, it fell to me to explain the significance of his death. As usual, she got right to the heart of the matter.
“Why did they kill him?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I knew it was going to be a long conversation.
“Well, you see,” I began, “there were these buildings in New York City…”
She listened as I prattled on, but I could tell she wasn’t too interested in the back story. She was looking for an answer to the big question. Nothing else was going to satisfy her.
“I thought it wasn’t okay to kill someone,” she interrupted.
“It’s not,” I replied, measuring my words carefully. “But you have to understand that this was a very, very bad man. In fact, you could say he was evil. He killed a lot of people, and if he had the chance he would probably have tried to kill a lot more people.”
“He killed them himself? In those big buildings?”
“Well, no, you see, that’s just the thing. He got other people to do the killing, which means that he was also a coward. Do you know what that word means? It means someone who doesn’t himself have the courage to do something dangerous but wants other people to do it for him. That’s not very brave, is it?”
As these words escaped my lips, I was suddenly aware of a secret fear that has been stalking the darker corners of my mind since the day Clara was born: It can be a nasty world, and if I don’t have the courage to teach her what she needs to know about it then someone else will, and they’ll probably get it wrong.
When 9/11 happened, I was still single. Children, and the difficulty of explaining the vast array of life’s cruel consequences, seemed as distant to me as did any of the other things that you can’t quite fathom until they happen: fear, illness, sorrow. I was, as they say, footloose and fancy free.
But I remember very well the anguish of parents and teachers struggling with the question: How do you explain this terrible thing to children? How do you put mass murder into terms that a child can understand?
I recall the look on President Bush’s face as his aide whispered in his ear the shocking news that passenger planes full of innocent people had been flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon. The President was reading to a room full of schoolchildren that morning. His first thought, he said later, was not to frighten them.
Now, here I was, nearly a decade gone by, squirming as I tried to satisfy my own child’s curiosity about a world historical event—one that will likely shape her life and the world she inherits—without unduly frightening her. I thought about changing the subject. But that wouldn’t have been very brave, now would it?
“Look here,” I said, “there are times when our soldiers or our policemen have to protect us from bad guys like Osama bin Laden. Just the same way that Daddy would have to protect our family if someone was trying to hurt us or come into our house without permission. So the Army went there to Osama bin Laden’s house, which is very far away from here, and killed him to make sure he couldn’t hurt any more people.”
“I’m confused. The Army are the good guys? Even though they killed him?”
“Yes. They probably didn’t want to do it, but they had to do it, to keep us safe,” I said.
“Even though God says not to kill anyone?”
“I’m sure God isn’t too happy about it, but I don’t think He wants good people to get hurt by bad guys either.”
Coinciding as it does with the start of a new school year, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will surely produce a fresh round of questioning. The “who,” the “what,” and the “where,” will naturally take a back seat to the “why.”
But difficult questions have difficult answers, and it’s hard to know just how much a child like Clara can take in without being permanently damaged by the awfulness of what she learns.
“Why?” she asks again. “Why did Osama bin Laden tell those men to knock down those buildings Daddy?”
“I’ve had ten years to think about it, sweetheart, and I still don’t know.”
Originally published in the September 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic.