Talking to Kids about Osama Bin Laden
Updated at the bottom
On September 11th, I worked in a school. We gathered all of the students, from sixth grade to twelfth grade in the theater to give the news and then broke into smaller rooms until parents could arrive for pick-up. I had everyone in my room write down the thoughts passing through their head at the moment, and I collected them, xeroxed them, and gave out a copy to all of the middle schoolers who had waited in my room. I told them that it would be a way to remember where they were, who they were with, what they were thinking. In that moment in time, trying to contain and comfort preteens, creating a written time capsule seemed like the only way to fill that space. All of us were too numb, too distraught, too scared to do much more than silently jot down disjointed thoughts.
The students from pre-K to fifth grade were in a different building on the campus. They went into lockdown in their classrooms and while the teachers quietly whispered from room to room, they continued with lessons until they were released early from school. Years later, those students expressed how terrible it felt to be cognizant that something was wrong, something was happening, and to not be told even in age-appropriate terms. They could tell the adults were upset. They could see students out the window walking across the campus, crying. Not being told made them distrust the teachers; made them wonder what they weren’t being told.
And wouldn’t we feel the same way if we knew someone had information and they weren’t telling us for our own good? Children are human beings just as much as adults.
I told the twins about Osama Bin Laden when they woke up this morning. I explained that there was this terrible man (“Worse than Darth Vader? What about Voldemort? Was he worse than Voldemort?”) who had been hiding for almost 10 years, and we finally caught him last night. I stopped short at telling them that we had actually killed Bin Laden because I didn’t know how to explain that without opening the door to a new room of greyness.
I didn’t tell them what he had done except to explain that he was worse than Voldemort in the sense that he was real. That he had hurt at least 50,000 people; again, not ready to explain that when I said “hurt,” I mostly meant “killed.” They asked if this meant that there would be no more wars — after all, isn’t that how life continues in Harry Potter’s world? Get rid of the bad guy and all bad things stop — and I had to explain there probably would be wars in the future. That the world was both a safer and equally dangerous place because of this.
In Judaism, we don’t celebrate the death of an enemy. It’s part of the Pesach seder, therefore, that idea was fresh in their minds. I told them they might see adults happy today, but what we were celebrating wasn’t about Osama Bin Laden. We weren’t celebrating the fact that we hurt him. We were celebrating that we could give closure to the families he hurt. We were celebrating that he couldn’t do anything bad again. I made the celebration about us vs. being happy over what the enemy was losing.
After they each had a pre-school cuddle, we went downstairs to breakfast and packing bags and making lunches. They went to kindergarten as if this were an ordinary day. I went home and held my breath. One day, I’m going to have to explain September 11th to them. I’m going to have to explain the Holocaust. I’m going to have to explain that J.K. Rowling didn’t dream up Voldemort from scratch, that he is an amalgamation of all the evil that exists in the world; that inhabits very real people. That Osama Bin Laden was human, just like we’re human. Which makes it all the more horrific.
It is easy to compartmentalize evil robots and evil aliens — we’re not cut from the same cloth and we can use that as an explanation. It is something quite different to wrap your mind around the fact that it was a choice. That he chose to kill people not because it’s coded in his DNA, part of who he is as something inhuman, but because he wanted to do it.
I would like to keep them like those students, closed up in the room, pretending that we can keep them oblivious because I do believe that sometimes, ignorance is bliss. But hearing how the students processed being kept in that glass bubble — being able to see out and know something was happening, yet unable to hear it or get close — made me pop the one around the ChickieNob and Wolvog.
After school, I asked the twins if their teacher had spoken about Osama Bin Laden with the class. They both gave a nervous laugh and told me that she hadn’t. I asked if any of the kids in their class were talking about it, and the Wolvog stared out the window, thinking. “We’re the only ones who seemed to know,” he admitted. “Except for probably the 5th graders. But they don’t talk to us.”
Which led us to a final talk about why parents might not want to talk about Osama Bin Laden with their children, and how that was fine too — there was no right way or wrong way to approach a topic.
All of my fears that others would get to the kids first were unfounded this time. They probably could have skated through the next few days oblivious.
The only mark left behind was a casual remark later in the evening by the Wolvog that his imaginary friend Jancefer has a friend whose father died recently in the war. How recently? Sunday. This friend’s mother had also died a while back (“She was old. Like over 200.”), and this current military death left this imaginary person an orphan. The Wolvog relayed this to me from the back seat, his voice breaking as he repeated several times that this imaginary boy had lost his father.
The questions, the imaginary friends living out their worst fears — it’s all in the vein of trying on dress-up clothes, trying to see how it feels, rolling around in it uncomfortably. And I’m just grateful that in their current life, it’s all just play-acting. It’s all just practice and pretend. Because it’s dawning on them that for some very real families, that truth hits closer to home.