Talking Terrorism With My Son
A smidge before Christmas, I was lounging on my sofa after my 7-year-old son went to bed. As I perused the sea of channels, I overheard a sweet, soft melody emerging from his room. It was muffled, but to my gay ears it resembled holiday music. My son was singing. This never happens. I immediately rushed upstairs to eavesdrop.
Putting one side of a glass to the door as I learned from watching Scooby Doo, I was able to decipher his tune…it was the death march they play when Darth Vader enters the room on Star Wars.
So much for festivity.
Other sounds I often hear are expert-level RAT-A-TAT-TATs, or <insert missile effects and shooting noises here>. Like most boys his age, he’s into guns and lasers. And like most gay liberal dads, I’m not.
These are harmless, normal activities, but they still involve death and carnage. With all of the recent death and carnage happening globally, I surmised he needs to be better informed.
So how to approach this topic?
I turned to reality. He likes to watch the news, so when the recent attack at Manchester occurred, I decided to start a dialogue with him, which went something like this:
Me: Hey buddy, do you know what a terrorist is?
Him: Yeah – a guy that is just so mean. He just likes to shoot, and there’s something wrong with him.
Me: Something wrong with him?
Him: Yes, he is evil.
Me: I agree, terrorists are evil, so evil unfortunately exists. Do you know where terrorists come from?
Him: Well, anywhere?
Me: That’s exactly right, and that’s also a large part of the problem. Do you know what terrorism is?
Me: Well you saw how many innocent people were injured and died after that Ariana Grande concert (he of course knows who she is because of me). That was an act of terrorism.
At that point, he stared blankly at me, and I realized he didn’t understand the significance of terrorism. I segued into some images I felt necessary to display.
When you Google the words “9/11 attacks,” about 50 million hits come up. To a young boy, it appears like an action movie. He didn’t process it as real. I found footage of the planes actually crashing into the towers and he had the same “WOAH” face that he does when he watches a cartoon explosion.
“Buddy, this really happened. There were people in those towers just like me and your other dad. They died that day. Thousands of people died that day. It was the worst terrorist attack ever on the United States, and it will forever change the face of history.” I explained.
His face changed, and the emotional response I was seeking became apparent. He was slowly catching on. I went on to say that terrorism can come in many forms, and it can be a small or large act. I turned to dictionary.com for some assistance. It states:
- A person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism.
- A person who terrorizes or frightens others.
(alongside two other definitions that aren’t relevant here)
It actually answered some of my questions to better explain things to my son. I was able to refer back to the theater in Aurora, Colorado, and most recently, the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando.
This required some more backstory. I had to rewind and explain what a club is first, and then what a gay club is (I left out the sordid details). What I wanted him to comprehend is that what all these attacks have in common is they are considered “safe spaces.”
He had a profound statement after this, which was “Daddy, I guess there really are no safe spaces anymore.” Dumbfounded, I agreed.
I spared him the Newtown massacre because I didn’t want to send him to school mortified. I purposely spoke about things he wouldn’t be attending anytime soon: a rated ‘R’ movie (or was it PG-13?), a gay club, a concert. That way he was able to wrap his head around everything, but not feel threatened. I wanted him to become aware but not scared.
After going through all of the awful things terrorists do, and comforting him that he should never have to personally worry, I showed him the silver lining. I was reminded of a quote I heard from dear old Mr. Rogers (R.I.P.) that stated quite simply:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
I spoke of the heroes that emerged from 9/11 and the Pulse club shootings. I told him that when tragedy strikes, there’s always human angels nearby, who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. I showed him the brave fireman marching to their impeding deaths up the stairs in the World Trade Centers. We watched this video from CNN that demonstrated several different acts of heroism during the Pulse attacks. It was critical for him to understand that only fictional heroes wear capes.
An hour or so later, with many questions in between (continually asking if we are safe), I felt as though he was better educated. This is the state of the world we live in now, where we can choose to shelter our kids and keep them aloof, or arm them with knowledge, as uncomfortable as it may be.
The next morning I asked the obvious “did you have any nightmares?” and he was just like “uh, why?” so I suppose he digested it well. I sent him off to school that day with a little more pride than usual. For today, June 12, is the anniversary of the Pulse attacks. Together he and I will hold our own candlelight vigil. And now, he'll know exactly why.
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