We began the tour by visiting a large photographic timeline of how things unfolded that dreadful day. I was not prepared for the overwhelming sadness I felt as I stood there, a six year old hand in each of mine, my sensitive 9 year old undoubtedly wishing I had a third to offer her. The twins looked up at me with their endlessly deep blue eyes and I was glad I hadn’t thought to remove my sunglasses. Looking at them- with all THIS in the background — my own eyes instantly filled with tears.
I showed them how the wall told the story, minute by minute. I told them how we all thought the first plane was an accident, but then there was another. They stared at the holes in the buildings and said nothing. We moved on to pictures of the Pentagon. I pointed out that their Dad and I were close to the events in Washington; my husband was a physician in the Navy and worked at Bethesda.
“Did Daddy have to help all the people that were hurt?”
Deep breath. Swallow. Compose yourself, Mom.
“No. There were not many injuries.” I paused, waiting for them to absorb.
“People didn’t get hurt?”
“No, baby. People died.”
We moved on. My oldest stood for several minutes staring at the pictures of people covered in ash as the buildings fell. The little ones remained quiet, never letting go of my hands.
I stopped in front of a picture of a field and tried to explain the heroic actions of the people on that last plane. “Were THEY hurt?” they asked, hopeful. I shook my head. “They died too?” I nodded yes. “But no one else did — and that is what we have to try to remember. They saved lives. They are heroes. Can you imagine how brave they were?” Such a silly question. As if any of us can imagine that kind of courage.
We walked outside, around the side of the FDNY Ten House. A 56-foot bronze sculpture lines the wall. Hanging beside the station door is a large framed poster of hundreds of year book type photos of firefighters and other first responders. All of them lost serving others that day.
“There’s a lot of them. Did they all die too?” I nodded once again.
My younger daughter, quiet up until now, asked “Do you think any of them were Daddies?” Ouch. Kids really can cut to to the core of things.
“Yes, I’m sure many of the were Daddies.” And brothers. And friends. And sons. I squeezed my little boy’s hand. Now it was my turn to be speechless.
My impulse was to blame their religion. Fanatical religion compels people to fanatical behavior. It has been the same throughout history and I imagine it will always be so. When someone so deeply believes in their “rightness” so much that everyone else is WRONG, how are they not moved to inexplicable behavior? However, I wanted to be careful how to explain this – I didn’t want make them afraid of all Muslims or the entire religion of Islam.
I thought about how we had armed and trained Osama bin Laden and others who would eventually form the Taliban — those militants were our friends against the Russians as recently as 1989. That friendship was short lived and after the Cold War ended, America lost interest. I thought about how it was our lasting friendship with Israel and international actions in support of this country that Osama detested. We, as a nation, of course in no way DERSERVED the attack of September 11, 2001 – but I see value in trying to UNDERSTAND, as much as one can understand, how this madness was created, allowed to fester and boil over. Isn’t that really the only way to stop history from repeating itself?
I wondered to myself how many new “Osama bin Ladens” have been born in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past 10 years? And who could blame them? Although there is huge debate on the absolute number- all agree tens of thousands of civilians have died as a result of these wars. Last week, 17 innocent Afghans were killed by an American soldier. When you reflect on those in our own country so willing to condem an entire religion based on the actions of a few — you can imagine what a poor, uneducated, illiterate population does with the actions of soldiers in uniform representing a country. A wave of anger went through me as I thought about the US politicians now talking of starting yet another war.
So I answered as simply as I could. “They don’t hate you. They don’t hate me. They don’t know US. What they hate is the idea of America as they believe the world should be. Their extreme belief of their religion tells them that we are evil and that they must fight against that evil. Not all in their religion believe the same, but this small group does. They hate, in a similar way they hate America, some of the countries that America calls “friend” because of so many years of history and war and religious arguments. They hate the way we behave, they think we are disrespectful to their beliefs, and they do not agree with our actions around the world.”
It was the best I could do. Such small hands in mine, asking such BIG questions. I know this will be a conversation we will have many times, as they process and come back with new thoughts. I hope that I can help them see that war brings more war and hate is never the answer. I hope they will not close their minds and cling to simplistic “us vs. them” or “you’re either with us or against us” and instead understand that these issues are complex. And while America is not to blame — there were mistakes made, mistakes continue to be made and we must always try to do better. To be better.
And I as stood watching my children stare into the void of the memorial water falls, with the new tower under construction gleaming behind them…I felt hopeful that we would. Be better.
After all, what choice to do we have?