October 11, 2001
Living in the shadow of terror
These are indefinable times, the mood of my nation is different than anything I've ever observed. I felt it on Thanksgiving weekend, at the county fair where my children ate candy apples and rode on ponies --and the adults gazed at one another more meaningfully, with pointed kindness, with unspoken offerings of reassurance: I am decent, I wish no harm.
I felt it at the dinner table, where my extended family shared a turkey in unaccustomed quiet. I felt it in the streets strewn with maple leaves, where my dog drifted from shrub to hydrant and my little boy plucked marigolds from a lawn sporting the American flag, and the dissonance of serenity and evil -- implied by the necessity of that flag -- overwhelmed me.
Shock, and the first urgent cascades of conversation about Sept. 11 have given way to a pensive kind of stillness. We face the fact that people we have never met, on whose behalf thousands of us have even worked and advocated, hungrily wait to dance upon our graves. We confront the remarkable knowledge that men are busy, even as I write, finalizing their plans to kill as many of us as they can.
We took a while to wrap our heads around this, and there's no shame in the delayed reaction, we aren't fools and sissies because we at first, reflexively, tried to grapple with international points of view. We are a generous and compassionate people who are open-hearted and inquisitive, and humane to our core and there's pride to be taken in that, not fault to be found. It's self-abnegating to dismiss such civility.
With wartime, however, comes a settling in the bones, a gathering sense of weight. And sorrow comes, too, from translating the abstraction of terrorist menace -- that seeming rhetoric of media, that dry marshalling of intelligence data -- into an intimate revelation of loss.
If my little daughter lay on her bed with her doll, and her Eloise book, and her new apple dress that she so adores that she must wear it to sleep -- if she lay on her bed surrounded by these beloved accompaniments, and rasped and sweated in the waning of her small life as small pox or anthrax worked its horror on her beautiful, milky skin and slender little limbs, and she asked me, "Mommy, how do people get to Heaven? Do they walk?" And she asked me, "Will I be better for my birthday party?" And she asked me, "did I get a germ inside me?"
I, her mother, omnipotent, in charge, able to bring off the New Bike, and the Wonderful Party and the sustaining, ever-lasting comfort of my arms around her waist, would say: "Yes sweetie, yes you did get a germ."
"Where did I get it?" she would ask me, because she is insistently curious, because she has a lovely, probing mind that I cannot now admit to her is squandered and futile and dying, because someone from the other side of the world, who has never looked into her wondrous, intelligent dark eyes, has decided to kill her for being an Infidel. I cannot admit that to her because the betrayal would be too immense, for her and for me. I would have to formulate a sheltering lie, to keep her safe, not from her death but from her life. From her remembered life in the moment of her dying. "You did not die, Clara, because it made a man named Osama bin Laden strut about gleefully in the dust of Afghanistan and rejoice at his victory for Islam. You died, my cherished child, my inquisitive daughter -- discovering whether worms have noses and how snow is made -- because God wanted you in Heaven."
And if I don't believe in Heaven, then I live the rest of my existence in Hell, for the lie I shared with my daughter like a secret, as she died in her bed in her favourite apple dress, in service to the triumph of al-Qaeda.
And so that Hell has already been entered, for the mothers and fathers whose children were passengers on the hijacked planes of Sept. 11. So it will be for more of us, barring a miracle of perfect homeland and perimeter security in the coming decades. It isn't only our soldiers, sent off to war who are going to be murdered in the years to unfold, it is our children, our elderly, our lame. There is no mercy, there are no ethics; it doesn't matter if we're Muslims or Jews or Christians or Baha'is or Hindus, or women or men, or a four-year-old girl so full of love that she would take the hand of bin Laden himself and lead him to her room to show off her doll, before he bent over with his revolting Mona Lisa smile and handed her a live grenade.
Is that real? The man has said as much. My daughter has American blood, she was with me in New York this year, I take no comfort in being one step removed and there is none to be had for my American friends. But still, how can it be real? We can be forgiven, I think, for taking all the waning days of summer to let the revelation of such darkness come down.
©Copyright 2001, National Post