Identity, Israel

Parenting from the Left #3: France and the 9/11 Memorial

“Dad, I have had enough.  I don’t really want to talk about 9/11 any more.”
So said my older son a couple of weekends ago, just a few days after the tragic attacks in France.  Our family had headed to New York City for the weekend, to take advantage of my work trip there.  With a hotel room in Midtown as a base, my wife and I were determined to show the kids
more of the city than our friends’ living rooms and favorite coffee shops.
But for all of our big talk about new and exciting destinations like the Natural History Museum, MOMA, and the Empire State Building, as we neared the Holland Tunnel, my wife and I found ourselves agreeing on a slightly different destination.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Perhaps it was because we had not yet been there ourselves, but as I look back, I think we were subconsciously drawn by our emotions from
the preceding days.  The recollection of the horror, the uncertainty, the vulnerability.  True that both of us have dealt with tragic situations around the world in our jobs, but usually more from the policy side than anything else.
These attacks, and the responses to them from around this country and the globe, had taken us back somewhere in our hearts and souls, and
I believe we wanted to now share those places with our boys, both of whom were born after 9/11.
There is not nearly enough space here to write about all of our impressions and range of emotions over those couple of hours in the Memorial.  But as my wife and I were plunged back to our recollections of that terrible day, we noticed a sort of distance from it all in our kids.  Not
disinterest, of course, but a disconnection.
As my wife and I spoke about it later, we likened it to the difference between our parents and us when watching films about the Vietnam War: you are aware of the human tragedy, but it is not one you feel directly.
Over the next few hours, we talked on and off with our boys.  How did you feel?  Scared.  Sad.  Does it make you worried?  A little bit.  I guess.
About what?  Why would someone do this?
Am I safe?
Ultimately the question of why these attacks happen is on everyone’s minds, but what was more on our sons’ minds – and by extension on
our own as parents  – is safety.  How to be protected, and protect your loved ones, from these attacks in the future.   How could they even begin to understand the reasons these attacks happen?  And how not to go through life fearing they might be a victim?
We had ducked out from the part of the museum that delves in to the context and history around 9/11, mostly because we had spent so much
time learning about the victims.  But I don’t think the kids were really looking for background on the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Afghan insurgency or its evolution and spread in different areas and regions.  Even the personal stories of the attackers would not have quite done it.
Of course, the boys understand the concept of accidents, and in their own way, they can also distinguish mental illness, or the idea that someone does something wrong or hurtful because they do not really know what they are doing, or even if they do, they lack an appreciation of the
consequences.  We have talked about with them in the wake of a number of mass shootings.
But those do not explain 9/11.  And from all they had been hearing on the radio with us over the preceding days, they knew it was not France either.  In these situations, the perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing and carried out their deeds methodically and purposefully.   That is a form of deliberate hatred and clinical violence they cannot easily make sense of, whether directed at people in the World Trade Center, a satirical magazine, or shoppers at a kosher market.  My wife and I struggled for answers to these questions of safety later that day when we
have brought the museum up, and we have in the days since.
Then we started to read the accounts of what Prime Minister Netanyahu had said in France on that same day: that Jews in France should leave and come to Israel.  And in one way, this may provide one direction for the principal thing we can talk to them about, especially when we
learned our boys were reluctant to tell their classmates they went to the Memorial because they were not sure what the others had learned about 9/11, or if they were aware of it at all (my younger son perceived that only a couple of his fellow 2nd graders knew about it).
PM Netanyahu was exploiting the understandable fear of the Jewish community in France, and throughout Europe.  Cynically, this serves any number of political ends for him, just as his pushing and shoving his way into the front of the leaders’ line at the Unity Rally
did.  But it also comes back to the ultimate question facing our boys after the 9/11 Memorial and France attacks: am I safe?
The response of PM Netanyahu is:  No, you are only safe in Israel, and you should be afraid elsewhere.  And presumably, that can be extended to only in an Israel that he is leading, given that there, too, his policies are rooted in a sense of fear – of Palestinians, of Iran, of Europe, etc.  And although everyone has their reasons, I think there is also an element of fear playing on parents who do not speak to their kids about events like 9/11 or the attacks in France and instead allow others to fill that void.
That kind of fear seems to me too often to lead to further isolation, which comes right back to fear and a conclusion that you are not safe unless surrounded by more of your own.  I believe we must push against that as much as possible – as a society, but especially as parents, no matter how hard it is.  If there is anything I feel comfortable about following the visit to the 9/11 Memorial and the talks about France is that the surest way to teach our kids to be safe is to teach them to be questioning, to be uncertain.
That is a hard lesson for kids (and many grown-ups) to be satisfied with when it comes to life and death, but in some ways, it is rooted in what we are teaching them every day: challenge yourself, try something new, be alive and present in the world, understand and love your neighbor.  It is at the core of Jewish religious teaching and values.
So for us to teach our kids to be safe with uncertainty, to know about the love they come from and live with each day, and then be directed in how they challenge themselves can open up their world.  They need to know that something bad could possibly happen – even if Probability would say it won’t – yet internalize the belief that their being actively alive in the world is the best way to be safe because it provides them the tools and wherewithal to understand the world around them, to the extent it wants to be understood.
Perhaps simplistic, but we had the chance to test it when we took them to see Selma on MLK Day, the subject of my next post.

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