He has never known a world without terrorism. Since his infancy, every trip to the airport has been met with scanners and searches. Bags have been checked at the entrance of every theme park, football game and civic event he’s attended. The good guys vs. bad guys games he played with his friends have always been U.S. Navy SEALs versus Al Qaeda.
Why does my son know about these things? The reminders are everywhere, and I can’t keep him in a protective bubble. He has seen the 9-11 memorials. He has met men and women who have served in the Middle East. He has had the breaking news coverage interrupt his favorite shows.
What do I say to him?
His 10-year-old mind doesn’t understand real life is not like a G.I. Joe movie. The hero can’t throw a few punches and end the conflict in 30 minutes. The bad guys aren’t always easily identifiable. They hide among innocent civilians. They have others do their dirty work. They can be hundreds of miles away when their bombs go off. He doesn’t understand that you may able to get the bad guy, but as we’ve seen play out over and over again in the Middle East, he can be replaced by someone worse.
Innocent people die. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines die.
What do I say without scaring him?
In my situation, I did my best to explain. There was no talk of death, killing, politics or end times – just the facts in a way a child could understand them.
I used the example of a school bully. I told him to imagine another kid tells you this bully hurt some little kids, but no one really knows for sure if he was the one who did it. You want to kick the bully’s butt, but the bully threatens to hurt your friends and their little brothers and sisters if you go after him. Plus, the bully has other bully friends who will try to hurt you and your friends if you get involved.
My son paused for a moment to take it in.
I then told him to imagine he was able to kick the bully’s butt before he could hurt anyone else. He smiled to himself. “I could do that,” he said. But then I added a twist. Now imagine another kid starts hurting little kids, but he is even worse than the first bully and he really hates you and your friends. “What if this bully was the one who was really responsible for hurting kids in the first place?” I added. My son furrowed his brow. “Oh,” he said softly. “I get it.”
My response was grossly over simplistic, but it’s the best I could do for a little boy who believes that good always triumphs over evil. It’s a horrible lesson, but kids need to understand how evil gets a foothold in many parts in the world.
In some places, that foothold lasts for centuries and the blood never stops flowing.