A guest essay by Georgia. Republished with permission.
When 9/11 happened I was nine. Our parents told us what had happened but nobody bothered to explain it in terms a child could understand. We knew that some people flew a plane into a building, we knew that lots of people in a place called New York had died, and that was bad, and we knew that it had something to do with a place called Afghanistan. Nobody tried to explain that terrorism’s main goal is to spread fear among the people beyond the immediate victims of the attack, that it hopes to provoke a backlash so severe from the attacked society and government that more sympathy is generated for the terrorist’s cause. Nobody tried to explain what Islam was, what an Arab was, what a Pashtun was. Nobody tried to explain how an entire people are not responsible for the acts of their government, or the acts of a small group of people within their borders. And nobody tried to explain that terrorism has no religion, that the hijackers had as much claim to the Qur’an as the KKK has to the crosses they set on fire. I really think I could have comprehended all that at age nine, if someone had tried to find the words to explain it to me.
The adults in our lives failed us morally at that moment. We absorbed the racism and fear that was filtering down to us in an odd distorted form from the media, from the things we overheard grown-ups saying. We became mini-jingoists, parroting words we didn’t understand, and not one person, not even in the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts, had the moral courage to set us straight. I remember a friend of mine saying that when he grew up he wanted to “blow up Afghanistan,” and my father making an uncomfortable face and sort of dithering before delivering a lukewarm disapproval and changing the subject. I believe that my generation’s soul still bears the marks of that moral failing, and the world is a much worse place because of it.
Now I am an adult, and there are a lot of children in my life who are around the same age as I was back in 2001. I don’t know how much they will be hearing about what has happened in Paris, and I don’t know exactly how I am going to respond to the questions they have. But I do know that I am going to go into school on Monday with a determination not to repeat the silence, the cowardice, the atavistic nationalism that failed my generation. I would ask that my friends, especially those who interact with children, but even those who do not, make a conscious choice to spread love and understanding this week. Educate yourself with the facts, assuage the fears of those around you, stand up to racism, and do not be silent. Let’s get it right this time.