Mama, what happened on September 11?

If you haven’t heard this question from your child yet, you’re likely to hear it any day now.  As the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, I’m seeing and hearing more commemoration than in the past eight years.

My son asked about September 11 two years ago when the newspaper vending box showed a solemn, patriotic event and he wanted to know what that was about.  The simple answer is, “Every year on September 11, we remember people who died when our country was attacked.”  That would be enough information for some young children.  As with any sensitive topic, the best approach is to answer only the question the child is really asking.  I am sharing the full “story” I told to Nicholas (who was only 4 years 8 months old but was already a very detail-oriented, tell-me-the-whole-story type of person!) as an example of what you might need to explain to a child, but be careful of heaping them with too many details.  In particular, think about whether your child is really asking, “Exactly what happened?” or, “Why did it happen?”

I began with my personal experience of the day because I think about half of the reason for September 11’s importance is the effect it had on our entire population, the feelings of shock and bewilderment and crisis that affected even people who were far away from the attack sites and didn’t know anyone involved.  I chose a tall building that is familiar to my child as a way of explaining the size of the World Trade Center.  Of course, you will use your own story and familiar building.  You’ll also express your own values when you talk about the politics behind the attacks.

September 11, 2001, was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky, just an ordinary Tuesday.  Daddy and I were ready for work at the same time, and we rode on the bus together until his stop.  When I got to work, my assistant Matt was already there and listening to the radio while working.  I said hello and went to put my lunch in the refrigerator.

When I got back, Matt told me, “An airplane hit the World Trade Center!  The news was on the radio a moment ago.”  The World Trade Center was a group of office buildings in New York City.  It had two very tall towers, the tallest buildings in New York.  Each one was three times as tall as the Cathedral of Learning and even bigger around.  Thousands of people worked there.

I said, “Was it an accident?”  Matt said, “Of course it was an accident!  Nobody would fly a plane into a building on purpose!”

About 15 minutes later, the song on the radio stopped right in the middle, and the DJ said, “We just learned that a second airplane has crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Center.”  Matt and I looked at each other, and then we both said at the same time, “This is not an accident.”

We knew that two planes flying into two buildings must mean that somebody wanted to hurt a lot of people, but who was it, and why?  We felt very scared and worried.  Everyone in the office was talking about it and listening to radios.  There was no more music, only news, but the news people didn’t know what was going on, either.

Then another airplane crashed into the Pentagon, the Army headquarters office building near Washington, D.C.  The air traffic controllers–the people who talk to airplane pilots on the radio and tell them where to fly so they don’t get in each other’s way–were telling every plane flying over the United States to land as soon as possible at the nearest airport.  But there was one more plane that wasn’t following their instructions.

The next news was that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed.  That whole building, more than 100 stories tall, had been damaged so badly that it fell down!  Just a little while later, the other tower fell.  Some of the people who had been working there couldn’t get out in time.  Also, firefighters had been going into the buildings to try to put out the fires and help people who were hurt, and lots of them died.

Soon after that, the last plane crashed–but this one did not hit a building; it went into a field “near Pittsburgh,” the radio said.  Well, at that point, our office manager decided all of us should go home.  Later we found out that the field actually was way out in Somerset County, about a two-hour drive away, but at that moment we felt like the attack was coming closer and closer!

I walked all the way home because there were no buses.  Later I learned that most of the tall buildings in Pittsburgh had closed and sent home all the workers, just in case their building might be the next one attacked–so there was a big traffic jam Downtown.  As I walked, looking at the blue sky and listening to the birds singing and feeling the warm breeze, I prayed for the people who must be stuck under broken buildings, for the helpers who were trying to rescue them, and for the people who had died in the crashes.  It was hard to believe this was really happening.  It was such a pretty day, it just seemed impossible.

When I got home and turned on the television, I was relieved to learn that no new awful things had happened.  The attack was over.  But we still did not know who had attacked or why.  All we knew was that some of the passengers on each plane had gotten up, after the plane was in the air, and hurt the pilots and taken over flying the plane.  When they crashed those four planes, they killed all the regular people who just happened to be passengers and workers on those planes, and they also killed themselves.  It’s so crazy and horrible it’s hard to believe, but that’s what they did.  People who do a terrible thing like that are called terrorists.  They probably meant to crash all the planes into important buildings with lots of people in them–but on that fourth plane, some of the passengers called their families on cell phones and learned what had happened to the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and they decided to try to stop their plane from hurting people.  They fought with the terrorists about who was going to fly the plane, and then nobody was steering it very well, so they crashed into the field.  All the people on that plane died, but by stopping their plane from hitting a building they may have saved hundreds of other people.

The next day, we started to learn about who the terrorists were and what they were thinking.  They came from countries on the other side of the world, in a region that’s called the Middle East.  Some of the countries there are Iraq and Afghanistan, where the wars are happening now, and also Saudi Arabia.  Most people in those countries belong to a religion called Islam.  Like most religions, it has many good people trying to serve God in loving and peaceful ways, but also some groups who have twisted ideas about what God wants.  One of those twisted Islamic groups is called al Qaeda.

Members of al Qaeda believe that God wants everyone to live according to the rules they believe are right–rules about how to pray, dress, eat, drink, work, and talk.  They believe that people of other religions should not have any power in the Middle East.  They believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with them should be killed.

Al Qaeda is not a country or a government; it is a group of terrorists who attack people and groups and countries that they think are trying to interfere with their rules.  The governments of some of the countries in the Middle East were making those rules their laws, and the United States had been arguing with some of those governments.  Al Qaeda members decided to attack the United States to try to scare us away from the Middle East.  They believed they were so right and we were so wrong that it was okay to kill more than two thousand people in the planes and in the buildings they hit.

Jesus said we should pray for people who hurt us.  It’s very hard to pray for al Qaeda!  They really do believe they are doing what God wants–so I pray that God will get through to them with the truth, that they will feel God’s love and begin to love other people instead of hating us.

You know that when you are mad at someone, you should use words instead of hurting the person.  Even if you are right and they are wrong, if you choose to attack them then you have done something wrong.  Even the wrongest person, even someone who has hurt you, is still a person.

After the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush–who was our President at the time–decided that our soldiers should attack Afghanistan and Iraq, where the governments were imposing those rules and killing people who disagreed.  That’s how the wars started.  Those were bad governments.  I hope that Afghanistan and Iraq will be better places after the wars are over.  But the wars have killed many thousands more people, hurt millions of people, and destroyed lots of land and houses.  I believe that more fighting and killing was not the right answer to the problem of al Qaeda; it has only made them mad, and although many of their people have been killed, new people keep joining al Qaeda.  I hope we can find a way to stop fighting.

The good news is that we haven’t had any more big attacks on the United States in these past ten years.  We are very, very lucky.  Every year on September 11, we remember that scary day and feel sad for all the people who died, but we also feel grateful that we are still here, we are safe, and we are free to choose our religion and so many other things.  Every sunny, bright blue September day is a special gift!

That’s the story that worked for me!  Believe it or not, this is actually the shortest, most basic version; Nicholas (now 6 years old) has asked for several retellings and asked a lot of questions!  In particular, he was very interested in the collapse of the World Trade Center.  For me personally, that was the most horrifying part of the day because I was an architecture student at the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which inspired my structures professor to give a special lecture about how those skyscrapers could survive extensive structural damage.  On September 11, I was so certain the towers could not fall–and then they did.  I did not understand it until I saw the television footage.  I’m not much of a screamer, but my first involuntary reaction was to scream in terror for that beautiful brave building murdered before my eyes, smoldering, and then brought to the ground in ten seconds.  Here is an excellent explanation of why the World Trade Center collapsed so suddenly and completely.  Even now, even the still photos accompanying that article make me feel sick.  It would have horrified me even if every person had escaped safely–but they didn’t, which makes it even worse.  Nicholas wants to see the video, but I have told him to wait until he’s older, because once you’ve seen it you cannot forget.

2 thoughts on “Mama, what happened on September 11?

  1. Pingback: How do you explain death to a young child? « The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: Living on the Flip Side « The Earthling's Handbook

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