We seek out normalcy even as nation fights back
USA Today, Oct. 7, 2001
by Samuel G. Freedman
The other shoe dropped just after my children had finished their ice-skating lesson.
My wife was bringing them pizza and hot chocolate when the television in the rink's lobby switched from the football pre-game show to the bulletin of American strikes against the al-Qa'eda terrorists and their patrons in Taliban Afghanistan.
"Are we using nuclear bombs?" asked my son, who at age 9 has suddenly learned much of such things.
I explained that we were not - the television reports told of cruise missiles and conventional bombs - but the question had not taken me entirely by surprise. Ever since Sept. 11, I had been waiting for this moment, waiting in my capacities as an American, as a writer and most especially as a parent. I knew I would have to explain to my darlings a world that includes the just war of self-defense.
"Aren't the people in Afghanistan like us?" my daughter, who is 7, added after bugging my wife for a second slice. Quickly, I translated into a child's terms the point that President Bush had made only seconds before on television. America would be bombing the bad guys, the terrorists, and we would be dropping food and medicine to all of the poor, innocent people.
As we drove back uptown to our apartment, I kept the radio tuned to the Giants-Redskins game, trying to reassure my children with my favorite ritual of an autumn Sunday.
This time, unlike Sept. 11, no smoke billowed into our Manhattan sky, no sirens drilled through the breeze, no thousands of refugees in pumps and suits streamed up the avenues. Looking out the car windows at soccer games, churchgoers, wedding parties arranging themselves for portraits, I realized the news had not yet begun to spread.
Then again, maybe many among us have been living in a state of suspended animation since the World Trade Center attacks. Not those, of course, who had lost friends and family among the 6,000 dead. Not those, of course, who had experience with terrorism in their native countries - whether Ireland or Israel or Colombia or Egypt or England - and who knew it could not be wished away.
But often during these past weeks, noticing peace signs posted on streetlamps and hearing the utopian strains on John Lennon's Imagine, or encountering a pacifist teach-in on the campus where I teach, I had the feeling that a goodly share of America was saying, as fecklessly as Rodney King during the Los Angeles riots provoked by his beating, "Can't we all just get along?"
Today, we were forced to confront the fact that, no, we cannot. Today we must understand that grieving for the 6,000 will not make the evil that killed them go away, sated with its body count. Our national experience with terror during the 8 years since the first attack on the World Trade Center should have taught us that even with an active peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, even without American retaliation, the terror network of radical Islam has not for a moment stopped plotting its jihad against the civilized West.
Who would not wish it otherwise? Who would not wish for peace in our time? As I type this, I can hear my daughter letting out her belly laugh, all the more hilarious coming from such a small person, to some cartoon on Nickelodeon. My son is playing Backyard Football on his computer. They want to know how soon it will snow so we can go sledding.
I will preserve as much of that normal world, and all of its illusions, as I can. Tonight we are supposed to eat out for my birthday at a fish place where my son loves the fried flounder. But I will have to break the news to my kids that their grandparents are not joining us, because they had heard reports of New York being "locked down" in anticipation of more terror. Maybe I'll talk a little about their great-uncle, who served in the army from North Africa to Germany, and why sometimes you have to fight.