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Bin Laden died on his son's ninth birthday. The next morning, a loving father tries to answer an innocent child's question. Reprinted with permission from a dear friend.

“Dad, who died?”

It’s May 2, 2011, the day after your birthday. We have had an exhausting weekend celebrating your 9th. We’re eating breakfast and the radio is on. Usually I turn it off while we eat but this morning I left it on. Last night’s news is still playing out: NPR with their mix of studious research and golly-gee man-on-the-street reporting. You figured out that someone was dead, and that this was somehow a good thing, and the cognitive dissonance prompted you to ask:

“Dad, who died?”

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a computer tech for an online seller of insurance. It was a job that I wasn’t excited about. What I was excited about was that you were due to be born in May of the following year. We had only recently discovered that your mother was pregnant and we were trying to figure out what that was going to mean to our lives. I got in my car like usual, turned on the radio, the disc jockeys were talking about something that had happened in New York, a fire or some sort of accident. By the time I got to the office they were talking about an attack, possibly missiles. At the office, we watched on TV as the truth was slowly discovered. Four passenger planes had been hijacked and turned into missiles: One slammed into the side of the Pentagon, two slammed into the World Trade Center skyscrapers, and one ditched into a field in Pennsylvania. We were stunned, as we imagined the blood on the airplanes, we saw on TV people leaping to their deaths from the flaming buildings. The office closed early that day, and I was left wondering what sort of world I was bringing children into.

“Dad, who died?”

When you were about 5 years old we brought home a picture book about a fireboat. It started out describing the history of fireboats in Manhattan, but as the city developed, fireboats were retired. In the 1990s, a group of friends restored an old fireboat. “How wonderful!” we said. We identified with the group of friends who enjoyed sharing big projects together—and then we turned a page, and there were the two towers in flame and smoke again. Your mother and I burst into tears; you were mystified. It had been years, but the image of the burning towers overwhelmed us. We recalled the evil perpetrated on our country, but also how that evil had affected our country since. (The book would go on to tell the story of the friends sitting in the harbor for days, pumping water onto the site of the fires. There were many stories of courage and sacrifice that day.)

“Dad, who died?”

When I was a kid Americans did not torture, even in war time. Americans did not gather intelligence on other Americans, and we did not wage preemptive war. As the years after 9/11 unwound we saw exactly how dangerous fear could be. American fear allowed a corrupt and silly President to be manipulated by oil companies into starting a war in Iraq. American soldiers, which is a fancy way of saying, “your neighbors and friends” were risking their lives and dying simply to adjust stock values. As our leadership claimed necessity we saw hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, no weapons of terror, and vast amounts of American money flow to crooked contractors connected to those same leaders. This led many of us to despair that America as we knew it was over, that we would never again see a free election, we would never see an end to fear and manipulation.

“Dad, who died?”

OK, I know this is stupid, but sometimes when I see ’90s sitcoms set in New York City, like “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” and they show the skyline during a cutscene or credits, and I see those two towers, I cry.

“Dad, who died?”

The object of the terrorist is to convince the population that the State is as horrific as the terrorists say it is. If I can control your fear, I can control you. This is deep mindfuck territory, and it works. Americans gave up so much of who we were because of our fear of what this man and his followers could do. I have never been afraid of terrorism, but I have been regularly frightened by the behavior of fellow Americans. After 9/11, civil discourse and intelligent discussion were derided, and ignorance and jingoism took center stage. When President Obama was elected, the fearful went mad. It is said that a black man must be twice as good as a white man in order to be treated as an equal, and after watching the patience and humor of Barack Obama, I think that is true. People said he was “un-American.” Fools without the wit to meet the man in a substantive debate demanded proof of his citizenship. Whereas a white neighborhood organizer would be congratulated on his dedication to his community, Obama was called Hitler. It was all simply racism, which is just another word for fear.

“Dad, who died?”

Parents are the worst sort of fear mongers. You see, we have these little bits of our hearts running around in the world. We call them children, and people say, “Oh, you are such a good person to have children. I could never have children. I am far too selfish.” That’s just silly. You see, having children is a very selfish act. It is the only way that we can project ourselves into the future. Parents have a very narrow focus: Our children are really all we care about. So when someone threatens our children, our better judgment goes out the window. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most powerful women in the Republican party constantly point to their fears for their children: Fear is the only card they have to play.

“Dad, who died?”

According to the LA Times: “Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, in 1957, the seventeenth of the 54 children of the founder of the Bin Laden Group, a construction company. His father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, was a Yemeni immigrant … The elder Bin Laden was a devout Muslim, raised in the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect. He had at least eleven wives. Osama was the only child born to Alia Ghanem, a beauty from Syria who preferred Parisian fashions to the veil. As a foreigner, she did not rank high in the family pecking order. Some members of the Bin Laden clan have said her status was so lowly that she was known as “the slave” and her son as “ibn al abida” — “son of the slave.” In 1967, when Osama was about 10, his father was killed in a plane crash. His share of the inheritance reportedly was about $300 million.”

“Dad, who died?”

American students read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s about race and justice and fear and humility. There is a small episode in the text where the father, much to the surprise of his children, shoots a rabid dog in the street. He doesn’t like to do it, and it brings him no joy; he does not celebrate the destruction of a living creature. But it must be done, a rabid dog cannot wander the street.

“Dad, who died?”

When I was 9 I asked my mother why there were bad people in the world. She told me that people aren’t bad, but that sometimes they don’t get enough love, and that leaves a hole in their heart, and they do bad things in an attempt to fill that hole up. She told me that for some people, being bad was the only way that they could ever be important.

“Dad, who died?”

“… we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”

“Dad, who died?”

Today I am looking at your mother over the breakfast plates. How do I answer this question? I start and stop a couple of times. A monster, a rabid dog, a “bad-guy,” a man who, through his cunning and violence, showed us the worst of ourselves. A terrorist, not simply someone who uses violence, but uses violence so that the victims of that violence will become monsters. Here was a man who spent his life developing a worldwide network of hate, just to throw it away on one simple murderous act that ripped the conscience and self-respect out of our nation.

“Dad, who died?”

Well son, no one to worry about. He’s dead and buried in the sea; and it is my fervent hope that as we forget his name, we will remember who we are.

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