What do we tell the children?
Tuesday morning, when airplanes rained from the skies and sturdy, immovable skyscrapers fell like card houses in a wind, I called my wife to make sure she knew what was happening. She said she did, but she had elected to turn the television off until our two youngest boys, ages 6 and 10, had left for school. She didn't want to hide the truth from them, but she also didn't want them to see images that would traumatize or upset them.
But we live in a world that won't tolerate sheltering. By the time they came home that afternoon, they knew everything. Eventually, they saw the images; the commercial jet slamming into the World Trade Center like a dazed bird hitting Jell-O; the ball of flame; the raining debris.
My youngest even recalled that I had shown him the twin towers last summer during a two-hour layover at JFK on our way home from a family vacation in Europe. Being a seasoned traveler, and having lived in New York as an intern years ago, I knew that certain windows in the Delta terminal provide a view of the lower Manhattan skyline.
With plenty of time to kill, the children and I had run all over the airport until finally we had succeeded. There they were, outlined on a hazy horizon like a giant's pair of starched pants standing upside down.
"It was those towers Daddy showed us?" my 6-year-old gasped on Tuesday. "Wow!"
So, what do I tell him? How do I explain the randomness of evil acts; the uncertainties of a dangerous world? How do I comfort him when he knows Daddy flies several times a year, often to places like New York and Washington?
It's hard enough to explain to my intelligent, comprehending, almost-ready-for-college 17-year-old. He and I were in New York City four weeks ago. We attended two Yankees games and had a wonderful time searching, with the help of a friend, for some of the spots where the city's grand old stadiums once stood.
I marveled at how much safer the place is now than when I lived there. We entered a fast-food chicken place in Harlem and saw how the thick Plexiglas barriers had been pushed aside. In the old days, the workers had to stick your order into a twisting, bullet-proof chute to keep people from stealing food or threatening cashiers. Now everything is as open as it is at home.
And the subways — no more graffiti, no more dirt, grime or scary-looking hoodlums. My friend explained there are few bad neighborhoods left in Manhattan, and clean subways mean you stand even less chance of being mugged underground than up above.
But safe? Now we know it was all a cruel illusion. In the old days, at least you could be street wise and avoid most trouble. But how can you be street wise against terrorists? And will you feel any safer in Salt Lake City in February 2002 than in New York City on Sept. 11?
Again, what do we tell the little ones?
Most of us have an innate desire to protect children; to give them a sense of security. There are good reasons for this. Children don't have the emotional maturity to handle horrific events. After the tornado of 1999, my 10-year-old still has an inordinate fear of thunderstorms. I watched coverage of the Kennedy assassination as a 4-year-old and for years had a sense of panic and foreboding whenever a news bulletin was broadcast.
I've been listening to a lot of experts this week. Most of them advise parents to answer their children's questions honestly and calmly but to not volunteer information needlessly. The Intermountain Pediatric Society sent a letter this week saying it is important to tell children they are safe and to keep them from viewing disturbing images over and over again.
It's good advice. My wife's instincts were correct. You shouldn't feed children, or anyone for that matter, a steady diet of the evil things the world has to offer. Still, sooner or later the kids are going to see that the world really isn't a safe place, after all. What then?
Finally, I read advice from Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who was quoted in the Los Angeles Daily News. She said the grown-ups who attacked civilians in the United States were taught as children to hate. Parents, she said, should teach children the importance of loving their fellow man. Remind them that "we're all human and we're all fragile."
The trick, then, isn't to make the world look as if it is a safe place for humans. It is to make the types of humans who can grow up to make the world a little safer.
As I think about it, that's really the best hope we have left.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org