Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t write anything about Sept. 11 on its 10th anniversary. I suppose I just didn’t want to be redundant; other people have offered great and weighty insights and small and poignant details on the events of that day.
Inspired by how some of my younger friends reacted to Osama Bin Laden’s death, I interviewed some young people at Jamestown College to find out how they had interpreted the attack, as 8-12-year-old children.
When Bin Laden was killed, I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal, because he seemed to me to be one head of a monstrous hydra. Cut it off, and two more take its place. I am somewhat cynical, I know.
My younger friends, however, had a very different reaction. While they had mixed feelings about rejoicing over anyone’s death (even one such as Bin Laden), for them, it represented some form of closure.
I believe one of them likened it, in a nontrivial way, to Harry Potter’s triumph over Voldemort. To this age group, the Potter books serve as a sort of unifying myth; even people who haven’t read the books know enough to talk about them and use their imagery. Voldemort is the essence of evil and corruption, a destroyer who in the book’s mythology, kills freely and believes himself justified.
Again, it was not a flippant comparison. To the young people, it was as if the newscaster had announced that the boogeyman had been killed.
It would have been very easy for me to have gotten overly flowery in my story. I could have written “stolen innocence” or “childhoods ripped away.” I believe that would have been an oversimplification, however.
I am not interested in minimizing what happened to them, but every child at some point will and must grapple with the concept of death, cruelty and evil. Fiction can soften the blow; we first read about Voldemort (or see the Wicked Witch of the West, or Emperor Palpatine on our screens) and we learn to recognize evil, clothed safely in fiction, where it cannot get us. It isn’t real. Voldemort will not show up at our schools; Palpatine will not knock on our doors. We need not worry about meeting the Wicked Witch at the grocery store.
Later we learn evil exists in the real world, too. Sometimes that is at an emotional remove as well–we learn about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, the Holocaust in school, safely in a textbook with the rest of the dead history. It all happened long ago; we are still safe. Right?
Many of the adults who were children 10 years ago did not have this luxury of time and distance. They would have been forced to deal with these issues anyway–as humans we must–but their experience in dealing with it was not the same.
For one thing, it served almost as a uniting event, in a way. I was slightly too young to have realized the impact of the Challenger disaster, but I suspect that served a similar function. Many adults recall the JFK assassination in that way too.
It was a shared loss, a simultaneous, sudden recognition of evil, existing evil in the real world.
Those of us who had already recognized it intellectually (being older) still had to grapple with the visceral truth of it, but it did not have the same type of significance for us, I think.
I only remember the shock and the incomprehension. I was older, in college, and I had studied philosophy for years. 9/11 still baffled me. In a way, it was like the time a girl had threatened to kick my butt in high school: I could not really believe someone could be that barbaric. Certainly I had read about such things, but surely people didn’t do that sort of thing in real life?
But people do. And we are all children in the face of evil.
Ten years later, the boogeyman is dead, yes. But we are not quite finished grappling with these ideas, this problem of the reality of evil. It is not easy for us to understand, whether we were 8 years old or 80. The only advantage age would have offered would have been a swifter recognition: Ah. I have seen you before.
We are all children, but we are not helpless, and you cannot taint us. If we cannot understand you, we can still fight you.