Insults and Explanations

Originally Published: September 24, 2001

Here’s how I tried to explain it this morning over the crunch and slurp of cocoa puffs: What if some guy who played with Legos a lot did something really, really awful – so awful that everyone we know got angry at him, hated him with all their might. And then, suddenly, some of those people we know, maybe neighbors of ours, looked right at you and said, “Hey! You play with Legos just like him! You must like what he did! You must have helped him! I hate you!” And then they ran after you with rocks and sticks.

The topics of conversations at breakfast these days are surreal. Children are so much more sensible than adults, and it is a challenge to explain to them why we do what we do. Like shooting at random people who happen to be wearing turbans. Or firebombing places of worship. Or putting an entire race of people in isolated camps because of their ancestry. Three sets of eyes look back at me in perplexity. We talk about things to do with our anger – how can we excise this madness we feel in our stomachs. I tell them, have told them, since they were able to walk, that it’s Ok to get mad if you’re wronged – it’s not Ok to take your anger out on those unlucky ones (in their case usually a brother or two) who happened to be in the vicinity at the time. That, I tell them, is what we need to remind ourselves now as a country. Calm down. Think before you act. I tell them even grown-ups forget that sometimes.

When we walked around our neighborhood that Friday after September 11th, as part of the nationwide candlelight vigil, my oldest son Sebastian, who is 9, asked if he could write an insult to those responsible for the terrorist attacks. He read it aloud to anyone who would listen as we collected neighbors along the way.

(his words and spelling)

 “I would like to say that you are the most idiotic, inconsiderate,

 uryn smelling bafoons with a phytoplankton for a cranium, with

a cortex that an electron has to look through a microscope to see.”

Maybe the United States could do something like that; hurl some big juicy insults at Osama Bin Laden to cool our anger and increase the odds of acting rationally when the time comes. Siphon off a little bit of the poison while we can.


I checked out the most unlikely assortment of books from the Arlington Public Library the other day. Two books on Rhode Island (for a book report of Sebastian’s), three books on Jewish symbolism, holiday traditions, and folk stories, and a book entitled “The Muslim World”, all from the children’s section of the library. I am finding a great need to understand things on a basic level these days, and children’s books tend to cut to the chase. I need to learn how to explain to my boys, in simple, non-rhetorical terms, just what the Muslims believe. My own knowledge riddled with western interpretations. I want the boys to understand that the teachings of Muhammad are as far from the twisted interpretations of Bin Laden as was the “Christianity” of the Nazis from the teachings of Christ.

The books on Jewish lore I got because I want the boys to understand that they enjoy many heritages, that they are “one quarter” Jewish, (along with their one half Catholic and, as Sebastian says, “one quarter nothing”), and that there is a rich tradition to which they belong. Last night, as we grouped in the living room in our pajamas and got ready to settle in to “Ramona the Pest”, I first read them a few stories from the books, one entitled “The Passover Thief” about a carpenter who first loses his money to a thief, then gets it back by cleverness and using a cool head. They cackled in delight as the wise carpenter pummeled the thief and retrieved his money. As is always the case with kids, wisdom and humor won them over.


My husband told me the other day that he has been praying for peace. It was a revelation to me. Aside from our modified Catholic wedding ceremony 13 years ago, religion has not played any overt roll in our lives together. I was filled with hope and fear when he told me of his prayers. And I felt, guiltily, a kind of sullen envy. I had no one to turn to. A big, nebulous blob of  benevolent mist just wouldn’t fit the bill. It terrified me that this man who I find to be so reasonable, so analytical and level-headed, felt the need to pray for peace, that he must feel that reason was no longer enough and that faith had to take over. But there it was. He had faith. It was unimportant that he doesn’t attend church regularly, or that he disagrees with many of the positions of the Catholic church. He had God to turn to. There was a parent. A Really, Really Big Parent. Someone who might be able to fix it. Put it right. I felt grateful that he believed, and jealous that he did, and scared. It isn’t that I don’t believe in God. I just don’t know what or where God is, and why he/she would bother with us. I certainly don’t believe that any one group of human beings has a monopoly in God’s name, whatever else I may be unsure of. Perhaps God is waiting to see if we can ever start acting like children and be thoroughly and rightly baffled by the insanity of the adults around us.


I periodically hear jet fighters overhead, even as I write this. It’s part of the joy of living ten minutes from DC. I try not to think of this place - where we are raising our family - as ground zero, but at 2 AM it’s hard not to dwell on it. The helicopters over the Pentagon on September 11th  were beating on my eardrums in stereo from the TV and through my bedroom window. Our house is on an ambulance route to Arlington Hospital and we heard many that day. We are in the thick of it. We all are.

The accounts have been amazing - from the beauty of individual heroism to the collective empathy of nations. So much has been, is being and will be written about Sept. 11th that I won’t add to the outpouring of words here. An image I’ll take with me, aside from the videotape horrors that will invade my nightmares from now on, is the black cover of the New Yorker, with the even blacker towers silhouetted, and the one, lonely, unutterably sad cartoon by George Booth inside. I can’t add anything to that.   


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