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The Child in Time

We want to tell the American children that Afghanistan feels your pain.

—official statement from Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Afghanistan’s Taliban ambassador to Pakistan

Curious consolation, not only considering the source, which as of this writing was not above suspicion in Tuesday’s attacks, but because of who it excluded. The mullah’s sympathy was directed only to the American children, most of whom (beyond those related to the victims of the plane crashes or building collapses) would likely be shielded from the suffering all around them, at least in the short term.

In the long run, though, it is true that our children will feel the pain of this disaster most severely. The explosions have thrown them to the far side of a chasm much wider than any normal generation gap, and it will be a long time before we will fully grasp its severity.

Until now, the World Trade Center was a testament to American invincibility, the more so having survived the 1993 terrorist bombing. With this week’s dissolution of those buildings, so went that sensibility. And so went the optimism and earnestness behind naming important buildings and airlines “World,” “American” and “United.” So inherently American — my America.

What will it be for my nephew, whose first birthday was Tuesday, or for my daughter, who turns 2 later this month?

I myself was born two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, two months before Robert Kennedy was gunned down. But my world is a world where America creates and must bear responsibility for its worst enemies — the Columbine kids, the Timothy McVeighs, the Ted Kaczynskis. As my high school world-history teacher was fond of saying, not since the Civil War has America suffered the devastation of war on its own soil. Until now, the “other” has remained outside, in foreign places that we wreck and then leave behind. Home was always safe from “them.”

An attack on American soil by a foreign entity — if that indeed turns out to be the case — shatters an essential part of what makes me, as an American, different from everyone else. It destroys that essential confidence and ease with which I move through the world speaking English and assuming that I am entitled to the best of everything wherever I go.

The challenge now is to keep this disaster from turning me into a xenophobic fatalist. Perhaps I will willingly surrender some of my First Amendment rights — for a time. Soon enough, though, I will have to figure out just how much I am willing to give up. And eventually I will have to explain all this to my daughter.

I know Tuesday’s attack will alter her world in ways I cannot now imagine. I hope it will show her that our country is, in fact, no better than anyone else’s, that there is no invisible shield protecting us from attack, that the days are over in which we paraded our military and economic might around the world with no consequences at home. We must now all finally begin to understand that. Everything depends upon it.


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