President Obama certainly wasn’t taking the sensibilities of West Coast children into consideration when he made his stunner of a speech Sunday night: Osama bin Laden is dead. It took parents by surprise. We weren’t ready, had no time to hustle the kids into bed before flipping on the television.
Minutes before, my girls, 3 and 6, had been frolicking in their bubble bath. Now, shivering in towels, these children born after four airplanes attacked a September sky had a question: who is Bin Laden? (More on Time.com: Bin Laden: How They Got Him — And What Happens to al-Qaeda Now)
With that query, the de facto practice of carefully tiptoeing around the enormity of 9/11 unraveled. Twitter user @erraggy tweeted: “We were eating dinner out with our kids when the news broke. Surreal explaining Osama bin Laden to our daughter who was 4 months old on 911.”
With kids, you start simply: Osama bin Laden was a bad guy who hated America. Bad guys, kids get. Their world is colored in black and white. Something — or someone — is good, or it’s not.
But what do you mean he was bad? They press for details. And parents everywhere now must explain hate and terrorism and the contradictions of war as best they can. It goes something like this: once upon a time, there were two tall towers that stood in Manhattan. And a five-sided building in Washington, D.C. And a grassy field in Pennsylvania. Some people crashed planes into them, on purpose. They killed nearly 3,000 people. And the men who did it were part of a group led by bin Laden.
I do not ever recall discussing the specifics of 9/11 with my 8-year-old son, but in that funny way kids have of acquiring knowledge without or despite you, he told me he’d read a book in which a blind man escaped with his guide dog from high up in one of the towers. “Wow,” I said. (More on Time.com: See Artwork by Kids After 9/11)
Questions tumbled out: how many more people are left in bin Laden’s group? Are the people in his group going to kill more people? Are they going to kill us? Can we move to another country that’s not America?
The answers, spoken with maternal bravado: I don’t know. I hope not. No, definitely not. No.
And then there are the inconsistencies of wartime. We teach our children not to hurt others and certainly not to kill, yet the nation is jubilant that U.S. forces — Navy Seals from the Joint Special Operations Command? Hey, those guys hail from Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C., where Grandma and Papa live! — gunned down bin Laden. We teach our children that two wrongs don’t make a right but apparently sometimes they do: because al-Qaeda killed 2,974 people, is it right to assassinate its leader?
“Even if you get really mad, you don’t kill a person,” Shira, my 6-year-old, commented after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January. But now I was adding a vengeful postscript, signaling that sometimes, killing is actually okay. It is very tough to be a child. So much doesn’t make sense. (More on Time.com: Giffords Shooting to Kids: Use Your Words)
“You don’t have to kill people if you’re mad,” Shira observed, referring to bin Laden’s decision to target bond traders and cooks and insurance representatives and janitors, not to mention moms and dads. “You just have to use your words.” (More on Time.com: Osama Bin Laden as Doting Granddad?)
Another myth we foist on our children. Because not every child nor every adult will listen to reason.
So we adults are left with our idiosyncratic truths and some more obvious ones. “Children are now being born into a world that does not have Bin Laden in it,” tweeted @meredithann109. “Little realizations like that make me really happy.”