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January 15, 2015

How Do We Explain Terrorism to Children?

child terrorism

Je suis Charlie

Last week, the very first week of the shiny new year, I was sitting in my living room with my morning cup of tea feeling really good. The cinnamon I had sprinkled in the steaming cup tickled my nostrils, the Christmas tree was finally down, and my son was getting ready to go back to school after two weeks of winter break. I envisioned a blissful day of writing and yoga stretching out uninterrupted before me.

My husband turned on the TV to get the weather before he headed out to work, but instead, we heard the horrific news— another terrorist attack, this one in Paris. Twelve people killed over a controversial comic.

I automatically turned to see if my son had heard what the newsperson was saying, loath to have him start his day this way, another bruise on the bubble I try to enclose him in, and sure enough he was paying grim attention, eyes wide, snow pants forgotten on the floor.

“What happened, mom? Did somebody die?” he asked with deceptive offhandedness.

I knew whatever words I spoke next were critical; they would help shape his lifelong perception of this incident and so many others like it—but what should I say? You can’t launch into a philosophical diatribe with a 10-year-old kid about to get on the school bus. On the other hand, people did die, in a horrific unfair way, and even a 10-year-old needs to know what’s going on in the world—in his world—in our world.

“Yes, son,” I sighed, rubbing my hand over my eyes, “People died.”

He nodded solemnly. “How?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know…” I shook my head.

But then I tried to find some words. I told him that two brothers (which was all I knew at the time) were upset about a cartoon a French illustrator had drawn criticizing their religion. That they were so upset they allowed their brains to be addled with pain and hate and fear. That they claimed to be defending their God, but all they were really doing was acting from fear—of what, it is a mystery—fear that their religion wasn’t strong enough to protect them, fear that they would live and die un-noticed in the world, fear of being weak—who knows? But that no good can ever come from acting that way.

Good things can only happen when words and actions are based in love.

I stopped talking. I let my son continue to listen to the news and saw his tender skin reflect the light of the TV, saw the images sinking irrevocably into his heart and mind through his child’s eyes.

These are moments every parent dreads. The world is scary. It doesn’t make sense. We may never understand why.

“That’s stupid, mom. Why didn’t those guys just do their own cartoon? Then nobody would’ve gotten hurt!” my son almost shouted out.

I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up. “That’s true! A much better solution!”

Our eyes met and he was smiling, proud of himself for having—theoretically at least—solved this ridiculous adult dilemma. He gathered up his things, slipped his snow pants on and was out the door just in time to wave the bus down as it passed his stop.

I continued to watch the news, my tea cold and untouched, my heart breaking for the people of Paris, for all of us people everywhere, who have to witness such things, who feel compelled to enact such things, who have to deal with the lifetime of fallout from such things.

I couldn’t better explain what happened to my son because I don’t understand it myself. But what I can do, what I did do—is teach the wisdom of empathy and the abiding power of love. It is one of many—although, abbreviated—conversations I have had and will have with him as I try to mold him into a man with a working heart.

A man who can draw his own cartoons instead of picking up a gun.

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Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Francois Bazoge/Flickr

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