I was 17-years-old when the attacks of September 11 happened. Even though I didn’t live anywhere close to New York, Washington D.C., or even Pennsylvania, I will never forget that day, and consider it a formative event in my life.
I think that a lot of people from the Millennial generation agree — 9/11 changed our world, and forced us to look beyond our communities, many of us for the first time ever. The deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on that day made us realize that there were people in this world who wanted to do real harm to our nation, and to the citizens who reside here.
I felt a plethora of emotions that day. Sadness. Anger. Bitterness. Betrayal. Exacerbate those perfectly normal emotions with teenage hormones, and you may start to get the state of mind I was in that day.
Oddly enough, I was pretty educated about the world before 9/11 happened. I knew who Osama bin Laden was. I knew that an attack on the World Trade Center had happened in the previous decade.
It was a jolt in the gut when the first plane hit. Most of my classmates didn’t think much of it — they considered it an odd accident — but having known of the prior attack, and seeing the looks on my teachers’ faces, I worried.
When the second plane hit, my worst fears were confirmed: this was an attack on our nation. And when those towers fell, my reaction changed to horror.
By the end of the day, the myriad of feelings I had felt succumbed to numbness. I just wanted it to be done. I wanted to go to sleep, and to wake up in a world where none of this had happened. Of course, that wasn’t meant to be.
In the sixteen years since 9/11, a lot has changed — in the world, and in my life. I graduated from college. I protested the Iraq War. I went door-to-door to talk to neighbors about electing a guy named Obama to become president. I got married, and became a father.
My son is now 9-years-old. He’s old enough to understand war, violence, and hatred, and it behooved me to explain what happened on that day a decade and a half ago.
I felt it was important for a variety of reasons. First, understanding history, recent and ancient, is crucial to knowing what direction we’re heading in. History was my favorite subject in school growing up, and it gave me greater contextual insight into what was going on in 2001 when the attacks occurred. Perhaps by explaining those events to my son, I could help him understand major events in the future as well.
But second, explaining the context of the attacks was important for another reason. Fear and confusion of those events created a prejudice in our society that we haven’t fully addressed yet. Those fears and unwarranted prejudices against Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Arabs, Indians, and other groups of people still exist. I do not wish for my son to succumb to those prejudices, to view people with different skin colors or religious beliefs as “enemies,” as some bigots have characterized them in the years since.
So when I spoke to my son about these events, I told him two important things: these individuals committed heinous acts of evil — but they are not representative of any other people besides themselves. I did explain what Islam is to him (in a previous conversation), and how these individuals thought that they adhered to that belief. But I also explained to my son that the vast majority of Muslims viewed their actions as incongruent to the faith they practiced, and that Muslim-majority nations had been the most vocal to condemn them.
My son obviously had questions. And I did my best to answer them. But mostly, I tried to reassure him that we were safer now, and that there is more good in this world than evil.
Much can be learned about the impact that 9/11 had on our lives. For me, I have learned that prejudices that once were somewhat dormant can be amplified by a tragedy. But I have also learned that knowledge can conquer such fears. We can learn from the past to understand the present, and we can take that knowledge to do works of good in the future.
Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Have honest conversations with them, regularly, about the world that surrounds them. And make sure they learn compassion — it is an invaluable resource that is in short supply these days.
Watch this video of Mr. Rogers on the one year anniversary of September 11: