How to Talk to Your Children About Terrorism

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In light of the rapidly unfolding events since September 11, our nation’s children are likely to be almost as caught up in the furor and frenzy about ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ as the adults are. Parents – and sometimes teachers, child care providers, or other child care workers – have a responsibility to defuse some of the children’s fear and anxiety by explaining the situation to them in simple, rational terms, and by answering any questions they may have with the calming force of logic and patient reassurance.

Young children’s questions should be relatively easy to answer.
Simon (young son): What’s ‘terrorism’, Daddy?
Dad: It’s when…..uhhh…..bad, evil people make you afraid by killing lots of innocent people in your country in…..errr…..violent ways.
S: You mean like when my friend Bobby’s daddy killed Bobby and Bobby’s mommy and Bobby’s sister?
D: Oh, no, not like that! Terrorists kill people for…..ummm…..political reasons, not personal reasons.
S: What’s ‘political reasons’, Daddy?
D: Well, like……hrrrm…..terrorists hate freedom.
S: Huh? I thought EVERYONE LIKES freedom! That’s what you told me before.
D: Well, yes, they…..arrgh…..these terrorists hate our AMERICAN kind of freedom.
S: WHY, Daddy? And do WE hate THEIR kind of freedom?
D: Eh? We sort of…..they don’t have…..why don’t you go and ask your mother?

If you think THAT was a tad awkward, your teenage or, God forbid, college-age children will pose even greater challenges. But in some mysterious fashion, the answers will actually become simpler.
Debbie (precocious teenage daughter): Mom, what exactly is ‘terrorism’ anyway?
Mom: Well, terrorism is when…..uhhh…..bad, evil people make you afraid by killing lots of innocent people in your country in…..errr…..violent ways.
: So it’s like capital punishment in the state of Texas, then?
M: Pardon?
D: You kidding? Not in Texas!
M: What, dear?
D: Never mind. Anyway, Mom, President Bush said that “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Don’t WE harbor terrorists? Haven’t a lot of them been living in the United States for quite a while?
M: Well, I’m sure President Bush didn’t mean THAT. I guess some of them have, but we didn’t know it, and we don’t condone it. And now we’re going to change it.
D: How?
M: By kicking them out or bringing them to justice.
D: Are we going to carpet-bomb Trenton, New Jersey like we’re carpet-bombing Afghanistan? And are we going to bomb wherever it is that Henry Kissinger lives?
M: Of course not, silly!
D: I won’t even ask what the difference is. How will we know who the terrorists are here in America?
M: Well, I’m not sure exactly. They’ll be foreign, of course, probably young Arab men as Peggy Noonan says.
D: But most young Arab men aren’t terrorists, are they? And some terrorists aren’t Arabs, right? Or even foreign? Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber – they weren’t Arabs, were they? Or Henry Kissinger?
M: Why on earth do you keep bringing up Henry Kissinger? McVeigh and the Unabomber were just crazy. Anyway, our government will figure out who the Evil Doers are, hunt them down like dogs, and punish them. Our intelligence agencies are the most sophisticated in the world.
D: Then why weren’t they able to PREVENT the World Trade Center attacks, and all this anthrax stuff?
M: I don’t know the answer to that one, honey.
D: This Osama bin Laden guy – how will bombing innocent Afghan civilians bring him to justice?
M: I don’t know for sure, dear. Maybe the people in Afghanistan will get tired of being bombed, and kill him or turn him in or something.
D: Well, they’ll have a hard time doing that if they’re all dead, or weakened by starvation. And wasn’t that how it was supposed to work in Iraq with the sanctions, Mom? I’ve heard that over the past 10 or 11 years somewhere around a million and a half Iraqis have died, including a LOT of children, and Saddam Hussein is still in power. Isn’t that true?
M: Well…..former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said it was “worth the price.”
D: WHAT was worth the price? What have we gained? What has anyone gained? Don’t our government leaders ever learn ANYTHING? What are you TALKING about??
M: I’m not sure, honey.
D: Won’t all this bombing and sanctions have the OPPOSITE effect, of creating even more people who hate America? More terrorists like bin Laden?
M: I hope not, sweetheart. I don’t see how ANYONE could hate America. We’re a peace-loving people who believe in freedom and democracy.
D: You mean like in Florida last November, where a lot of African Americans weren’t allowed to vote, and Bush won the Presidency?
M: What are you implying? I don’t think our government would let anything happen that wasn’t LEGAL.
D: No?? Speaking of our government, what’s all this I keep hearing about ‘blowback’, about America itself being a terrorist, with the CIA instigating terrorism all around the world?
M: Now there’s no need to talk dirty, young lady! And surely you mean ‘investigating’ terrorism? If what you say were true, our elected representatives would certainly be doing something about it! I think that’s just the’blame America’ crowd talking. Sour grapes.
D: Sour grapes?? WHAT sour grapes???
M: Oh, you know. The ‘blame America’ crowd hates freedom and democracy.
D: Huh? Just like the Islamic ‘terrorists’, you mean? I thought EVERYONE LIKED freedom and democracy, other than a few despots. I thought the ‘blame America’ crowd, as you call them, is arguing that America PROCLAIMS freedom and democracy for all, but doesn’t consistently PRACTICE those things, except for when it benefits corporations and the rich.
M: Where on EARTH do you get all these ideas?? The United States has been a beacon of freedom in the world for over 200 years! [Quoting: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…..”]
D: What about all the Native Americans we killed? And slavery?
M: Oh, honey, the Native Americans were savages. Noble, which is why we have them as team mascots. But still savages. And we’re SORRY about slavery, we really are. We shouldn’t have done it.
D: But we’ve never really officially apologized for slavery, have we? Or given any of their descendants reparations? Not even 40 acres and a mule?
M: Aren’t we wandering awfully far afield from our discussion of ‘terrorism’?
D: Not really. It seems to me that everything we’ve been talking about has to do with terrorism of one sort or another. Colonialism. Imperialism. First Europeans and then Americans consuming vast amounts of all kinds of resources, and doing WHATEVER it takes to get them. Isn’t that a common thread here? Isn’t that what all of this is REALLY all about?
M: Oh, sweetheart, I hate to see you becoming so cynical at such a young age! President Bush has never once mentioned ‘oil’ in any of his speeches to the American people about terrorism. America is the greatest and freest nation in the world. Just look at all the people from other countries who are struggling to come and live here!
D: Maybe that’s because we’ve helped make their lives in their native countries such a living hell.
M: Don’t you think that’s just a TINY BIT of an oversimplification, young lady? Why don’t you go and talk to your father about all of this? I’m sure HE can straighten you out!

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