Telling my Daughters about bin Laden

Photo by Jonathon Colman

Fairly significant departure here from my normal material. This blog is typically devoted to reflections on early American history. And will continue to be so. But today, how can you not stop to reflect on the history that has been made within the past 24 hours? I am really not a current events kind of guy…I probably know more about the politics of 1861 than I do those of 2011. Acknowledging that I am out of my element, I will nonetheless delve into a bit of a personal account of how I managed to explain this whole thing to my two daughters, ages 11 and 9.

I woke up this morning to a cup of coffee kindly brought by my wife along with the news from her, “U.S. forces found bin Laden and shot him.”  Or something like that.  I wasn’t quite awake yet. I remember  she said “U.S. forces” which sounded very peculiar and public-relations-like coming from her.

And from there the typically hectic morning of a typical (I think) family proceeded.  Wife went off to teach school, two girls rattled around, eating breakfast, packing up homework, arguing about nothing in particular, trying to find school notebooks, shoes and jackets. I thought about a busy schedule that awaited me at work. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes before they were due to walk out to the bus stop that it occurred to me…it might be a good idea to clue them in on what has happened. No doubt the school would be buzzing with chatter and rumors. They ought to have a good sense of the facts.

So, I sat them down.  First question from the younger, “Am I in trouble?”

“No,” I told her, “you’re not in trouble.”

“Oh, good,” she said.

As I contemplated how to start, it suddenly occurred to me that they probably didn’t even know who Osama bin Laden was. The older was 1 and a half, and the younger was two months old on September 11, 2001. I don’t think they really comprehend what that day was all about. I remember explaining it to them a few years ago. But I kept it somewhat vague. I guess you want to protect small children from information like that. Why put that sort of stuff in their heads? I don’t think I ever told them who bin Laden was. And they don’t exactly watch the evening news.

So, I asked them, “Do you know who Osama bin Laden is?”

Older said yes.  Younger said, “Who?”

So, I told them.  In terms I thought they might understand.  “He was the leader of a very large group of people across the world who want to kill Americans. The group is called Al-Queda. It’s Arabic for something, but I don’t know what. He planned the attacks on 9/11.  He killed thousands of people. We’ve been looking for him for ten years. Last night the United States military found him in a house in Pakistan. They attacked the house. There was a fire fight. Americans shot him and buried him at sea.”

The younger, “Is Al-Queda the terrorists?”

“Yes, they are.”

The older, “They finally found him?”

“Yes.”

The older, “Hurray, the Wicked bin Laden is dead!”

I had just seen, not 15 minutes earlier, a sign carried by a college student on the news reading, “Ding Dong bin Laden’s dead.” And it was all sort of unsettling.

“Did you see the sign on the news?” I asked.

“No,” the older said. She was being truthful.

“Because people are carrying signs that say just that.”

She shrugged.

I asked if they had any questions.

The older, “Did he plan attacks on other places besides the United States?”

“Yes.”

The older again, “Is there a second in line who is going to take his place?”

“Probably. There will probably be a lot of fighting over who is going to take his place.”

The younger, “So, is killing him a good thing?”

“Yes.” The answer was immediate and I was sure about it. But then the realization dawned that this notion might be a bit confusing for them. I added, “War is a serious thing and it is not right to be happy about someone dying. But it is a good thing that that he’s gone. The United States has been trying to get him for ten years for what he did and it is a good thing that we got him.”

They seemed satisfied with that. So, up they got to head off to school.  The bus was due in minutes.

As they went down the hall, one of them struck up, “Ding dong the Witch is Dead,” and it just felt…really wrong.  I caught up with them. Told them that they would probably hear stuff like that at school but they were to take no part in it. This is war, not a joke. They promised they wouldn’t. And I believed them.

Have to admit, a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading today has really disturbed me. Everybody’s got to deal with the re-opening of the 9/11 wounds in their own way. And mark this victory in their own way. I, for one, am hugely proud of our troops and mighty grateful we got him.

But there’s been a lot of shocking stuff flying around today. Some normally sane corners of the internet gone sort of surreal with vengeful rage and obscenities vented all over the place. Photoshop images of bin Laden’s head on a pike. I mean, really? Are we re-winding four or five centuries here? We are Americans. Aren’t we better than that? This is war, not an episode of South Park.

When I picked up my daughters at the close of the day, I asked them what they had heard at school about bin Laden. They nonchalantly responded that they hadn’t really heard much about it.

I wish I could say the same thing.

And now I will get off my soapbox and go back to writing about history…

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

4 responses to “Telling my Daughters about bin Laden

  • jess

    amen, friend. i struggled with this all day.

  • Carole

    You are a great dad, Patrick, and I’m sure you explained it very well to the girls. I have struggled with the same issue you have since the news came out. I’m proud of what our President ordered and I’m grateful that those responsible were able to succeed. But Bin Laden’s head on a pike? Cheering in the streets and singing mock songs about his death? I feel that is wrong. We were angry and indignant when people did this with our flag after 9/11, how can we now turn around and do the same thing? We are Americans and I believe we are better than that.

  • Jacob from Cohasset

    Well said, sir. If there’s one phrase I wish I had to say less, it’s, “we’re Americans, aren’t we better than that?” Apparently having any reservation about unrestrained bloodlust is considered passé, If one is to take any pleasure in the killing of another human being, it should be as a sober, morbid conceit that the world is probably a better place without them, had they kept living the way they did.

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