Last week I had the opportunity to speak with a group of fifth graders at the Tribute Center. It was one of those very cold days so the children arrived all bundled up in their coats, mittens, scarves and hats. We encouraged them to unfasten their coats, take off their hats and mittens. As with any group of children, you had those who were attentive and those who weren’t. They were led through the galleries by a staff member and I had the privilege of “tagging along”. One of the first comments the curator made was “are the attacks of September 11, 2001 current events or history?” It seemed strange to me that I hadn’t thought about that before. I pondered that question. I realized for fifth graders it is history they weren’t even born on September 11, 2001 but to their teachers, parents and older siblings it is current events.

At one point I overheard a student say to his fellow student “but why did they do it?”. They shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads and looked puzzled. I asked the two young men if they would like me to try to answer that question. “sure!” I choose my words very carefully. How do you explain terrorism to children. I have been trained in the proper things to say but it is always tricky. A simple answer is usually the best answer so I said “the terrorists were taught to hate. They were taught to hate America.” “oh!!” was their response.

Later when the fifth graders, their teachers and chaperones had finished viewing the galleries, they joined me downstairs for a my part of their visit – my September 11 story, timeline review and Q & A time. During the Q & A the same question was asked again “but why did they do it?” I gave the group the same basic answer I had given the two students. I stated “the terrorist were taught to hate. There is a whole bunch of history behind it but bottom line is they were taught to hate and then they made a bad choice to act on that hatred. Unfortunately, all through history people have been taught to hate but it is a choice to act or not act on hatred.” Little arms shoot up with more questions – “but why the Twin Towers?”. We discuss what an iconic is and what the Twin Towers stood for. We discuss what the Pentagon stood for.

And then a statement that was part fact, part misunderstanding and part question. “So after the plane hit the buildings, the police arrested the terrorists and they are in jail, right?” stated a wide-eyed 10-year-old boy. Pause. Glance at teacher. Breath. Think. I started formulating my words even more carefully. For a moment I thought how did he miss that a plane hitting a building would kill everyone? Was he not paying attention? How do I explain the unimaginable to this child? “No, the terrorist died, too! It was a suicide mission ” A look of shock on more than one face. Okay, they really don’t get this. Another pause. “You know if something bad happened while we were here together I would do whatever it took to keep you safe. Your teachers, all the grown ups here would be willing to protect you. Just like police officers, firefighters, and our military do all the time. But nothing in me can understand hating someone so much that I would kill myself so that they would die, too. That is what the terrorist did. They hated so much that they were willing to die so that someone else would die. And you know I am really glad you can’t comprehend that because you don’t want to be able to comprehend that.” 🙁

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom