Raising Kids in a Post-bin Laden World

Two days after bin Laden took his last breath, I woke up in a hotel room and opened a morning text from my 11 year-old.

“We don’t have bread for lunches.  My dream last night was Pakistan bombed us and I was scared. Soccer was good. Love you.”  My heart sunk just a little.

Sandwiched in between the ordinary slices of family life was that kernel of anxiety, something this post-9-11 generation lives with like a low hum.  It’s an airport “orange-alert” level of fear.

In those first few moments of digesting her message, I mourned my children’s innocence.  I wished for them the same anxiety-free childhood I’d had… until I really thought back to my childhood.   Yes there were manicured lawns and swing sets, mothers with milk and cookies after school and all the 1960’s “Mad Men” set trappings.

But uncertainty simmered under the suburban veneer.  There was Khrushchev and the Cold War, the North Koreans and the evil bear Mother Russia’s missiles aimed directly at our shores.  And then the shocking assassinations that rocked and shocked America; JFK, MLK and Bobby Kennedy.

In the elementary classrooms of my childhood, we regularly performed duck and cover drills.  I marveled that my simple plastic-topped desk would be strong enough to protect me from a nuclear bomb.

After the Bay of Pigs, some neighbors built bomb shelters.  My parents stockpiled crackers and water in the basement. That was where we were supposed to head if we were under attack, although I don’t remember a serious family talk about it. It was our own little Anne Frank’s survival area, which existed in a parallel life on the unfinished side of our basement, just behind the wall where the puppet stage and dress-up box lived. 

Osama bin Laden is to our children, what the USSR was to us; a monster, an enemy of mythic proportions.  And yet upon the news of his death, the third-world-looking video of Americans cheering outside our nation’s capital and at Ground Zero waving fists and flags (although the cameras made the throngs seem larger than they were) made me feel vaguely uneasy.  I was uncomfortable with my younger children watching the celebration of a death, no matter how hideous the man. Of course I was relieved that he was gone, but it was a quiet relief.  I could not bring myself to dance on a grave in joyous celebration.  It was complicated.

Our family, like those of other wounded or deceased journalists, the victims from 9-11 and those who have served or are serving in the military, has a personal stake in the right to celebrate bin Laden’s death.  We would be justified, I suppose, in our right to hate, to wish to see his death mask, his fish-devoured body; the proof that he’s been obliterated.  The attacks he masterminded were the pebble tossed in the still lake that rippled out to injure my entire family and so many others.  The terrorist act begot the war, which begot my husband’s grievous injuries by an IED on a dusty road in Iraq while covering that war. 

I wanted to tell my children that an eye for an eye debased all of us.  I wanted to teach them compassion and forgiveness but the bare truth was that our world was a safer place without this monster.  Sometimes, I supposed, killing was justified and life was lived in the gray areas.  The maxims were minimized.

In the 1980s when the walls fell around Eastern Europe and communist countries threw off the shackles of their doctrines, the world entered a relative period of peace.  And then a new kind of warfare.  Terrorism on American shores.  A hydra.  Cut off one head and watch three others spring up, blossoming with hatred.  There was a vague, ever-present threat that no one was safe, anywhere or at any time on our soil.  This is the world we inhabit now.

I find it comforting to study the arcs of history.  Periods of economic recession ultimately turn around.  Wars have been waged throughout time, empires rise and fall, children grow up and go on to raise their own children.  Flowers grow through the unforgiving cracks of even the best-laid sidewalks.  People are built to survive, to hope and to reach for resilience.

I don’t know exactly what to say to my children about all of this, although at times it seems so black and white.  And I honestly don’t think that fear lives in the forefront of their brains any more than the Cold War lived in mine.  I played dolls and hide and seek and kickball up the street and learned to write in cursive and went to the prom. 

There are times when the correct course of action is to ignore the elephant in the room.  Don’t look for smoke if the air is clear. And maybe by telling me her one scary dream, it was just enough to release my daughter’s fear.  I’d like to believe that’s all it took.

I never knew what happened to our little cold war safe house in the basement. Perhaps years later when life righted itself a bit; when they stopped killing public figures, when the cold war thawed, when Vietnam ended, perhaps my mother simply threw it all out. 

And in the end all of my worrying and mothering and trying to get ahead of the curve is futile.  Because in the end, none of us have the complete script for how tomorrow rolls out.  And the simple thing I have to tell myself, after I’ve whispered a prayer to keep them all safe, is that if I did OK, hopefully my kids have a fighting chance too.




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