I will never forget the phone ringing on that sunny September morning and my friend Annie telling me to turn on the television because the world was going to hell. My children, then 8 and 11, woke up a few minutes later to see me staring at the images of the planes hitting the towers.
We were in Santa Monica, 3,000 miles away, and two of the planes were headed here. I did that Boston to Los Angeles commute for years and was planning to head east in two days for a book tour. There it was. We were all connected somehow. A friend of a friend. Another friend’s son-in-law. The airline crews with whom I traveled for years. Didn’t you know so-and-so? There but for the grace of God.
In the days that followed, there were all kinds of television stories and newspaper articles about how to talk to your children about what happened on 9/11. None of them really mattered. The children saw it, too. They got it.
I was their age when President Kennedy was shot. I got it. The images stick. The world is not a safe place. I used to worry that my children, growing up half a century after the Holocaust, would never understand the vulnerability and courage of the relatives we never met, the hate directed at the Jews who weren’t lucky enough to get out when our family did. That worry was replaced by one even worse. They would know too well.
Soon after, when we went to the synagogue for the high holidays, there were guards. Schools stepped up security; airports where I used to make it from drop-off to gate in a matter of minutes sprouted long, snaking lines. I took deep breaths when I boarded planes. I made excuses not to travel.
And then time — the tonic of amnesia — passed. We started flying again. People started complaining — foolishly, I think — about being searched at the airport, as if they couldn’t remember why the hardworking men and women trying to protect us were patting us down.
The fights began about what the memorial should look like, who would pay for it and what to do about the mosque being planned in the neighborhood. We read, and tried to ignore, the stories about angry young men from England and Virginia who were volunteering for holy war against us. Feeling powerless, afraid of the world we are leaving our children, the mind turns to the mundane.
We cheered the killing of Osama bin Laden as if that would put an end to fear. It hasn’t. We learned new words. IEDs. Soldiers coming home disfigured physically and mentally. My friends in Israel said, “Now you understand.” I don’t want to understand.
And once a year, we take a deep breath, a moment of silence, a look back at something that still makes most of us quake when we see.
Has it really been 11 years? It seems like yesterday.
Are we better prepared, safer, than we were 11 years ago? I really don’t know. The candidates will probably fight about that, come tomorrow. As if changing parties and putting a new man on top is the answer to a world in which people, children, sacrifice their lives for beliefs that most of their own brothers and sisters reject.
Fear and freedom don’t go well together. In times of terror, civil liberties always suffer. And the ones who pay the price are the ones who look most like those we fear, even if they are no different from the rest of us. If 99 percent of all Muslims reject terror, or whatever high number is right, is it fair to treat them differently because 100 percent of those who killed on 9/11 came from that other 1 percent? I raise the question every year with my students. We look warily at the one or two Muslims in the class. What is there to say?
How much are we willing to sacrifice to keep our children safe? Ask me, and I’ll say whatever it takes. As if I know what that is.
Two days ago, a teenage suicide bomber in Afghanistan got too close; he looked like all the other kids who hang around, just kids, selling small things, collecting candy, being kids.
We will not be safe, Golda Meir once said, until our enemies love their children more than they hate ours.
I try to write columns with answers. But I have no answers. Only this: Hug your children. Live carefully. Do not take risks. Do not let fear turn into hate.
And most importantly, do not forget.