Yesterday, before the news breaks, I am cooking dinner — black beans soaked overnight and then cooked all morning, served with rice wraps and a romaine salad — when my phone buzzes with a text. In some cosmic pun, my four-year-old son, Master M., and I have been playing a game where his little white bear, Marvin, is having some horrible luck falling down into deep, dark mud puddles or getting stuck in tree roots. Each time disaster strikes, Marvin needs Master M. to save him. In the game, I am the commissioner of superheroes: I call out, “Master M.! Marvin needs you, he’s stuck in a tree and he’s hurt his knee.” And in swoops my son to his rescue.
Mid bean-stir, tortilla-sear, game-play, I can see my phone light up from across the kitchen. I know it’s my husband, Dan, texting me. “I just talked to you,” I grumble. “I’ve told you not to text and drive.” But in the distracted way most of us respond to our electronic devices, I go to the phone. I read: “Keep the radio off.” And then there’s a beat. I’m trying to digest what in the world it could be this time — another Sandy Hook? But because I’m a veteran of 9/11, in that I called New York my home when it happened, I understand as soon as the second text comes my way: “Explosripn in Boston.” Forget the typos, I know what he’s saying. “What?” I text back. I get one four word line in return: “Attack at Boston marathon.”
I look at my son, I look at our dinner. I keep going. But here’s where my brain goes: This spring I took a class called “Parenting from the Heart.” In it, we were instructed to tell our kids, when they’re freaking out, when they get hurt, when they need us, “You’re safe.” What we often say, the teacher told us, is, “You’re okay.” But “you’re okay” just invalidates a kid’s experience and silences them. So Dan and I have been telling our son he’s safe. We say it like a mantra — for ourselves and for him — “you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe.” And sometimes, when he’s trying to push my buttons, he’ll say, “I’m not safe, Mommy.” I smile and hold him and say, “Yes. You are safe. I am here. You are safe.”
Last night making dinner on autopilot, suddenly miles away from my kid and his game, I’m not present enough to think to tell him he’s safe. I’m not present enough to tell myself I’m safe. I’m not present enough to worry about my husband texting and driving and to hope he gets home safely. Because what I know, deep in my body, is that if, by a slim chance at lottery, my family is safe today, that doesn’t solve the larger problem, which is that the world is increasingly unsafe.
And I don’t just mean for Americans, though that concerns me, of course. I’m also thinking about families in Boston and kids in Syria; I’m thinking about babies in Baghdad and mothers in North Korea; I’m thinking of fathers in Iran and grandparents in Mexico; I’m thinking about a world we’re building in which a bombing at the Boston marathon feels, suddenly, totally predictable, like it was only a matter of time, and something like this was bound to happen. “See,” I hear myself thinking. “See!”
My opinion is that, as Americans — I’ll keep it that specific for now — we had a unique opportunity after 9/11 to be leaders in a worldwide brokership of peace. But instead we chose to go to war, and we’ve been on that path ever since, the radius of violence ever expanding wider and wider. And even though there may have been some bloody victories — the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the execution of Bin Laden — the mother in me knows on an intuitive level that we have to stop: This will not make my kid safer. This will not make any other mothers’ kids safer.
We are creating a world where people in impoverished places around the globe are hungry and angry and have come to fucking hate Americans. They hate our celebrations, they hate our money (even when we’ve been leveled by a recession, which we’re told is over even though so many of us are still fighting to find work and pay for groceries to feed our kids), they hate our shopping, they hate our greed, they hate our violence. And can we blame them, really? Violence begets violence — don’t we know that by now? Where is the Twitter feed that reminds us daily — we need it like an IV, tenth of a second by tenth of a second — of these truisms? Do we all need tattoos with M.L.K. Jr.’s words?
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
And even if we got these words emblazoned on our arms — all of us — I fear we’d forget to read them. Like our hearts and minds, which know the truth but ignore it, these words would become just another part of us that we’d choose to forget. We’d become complacent; we’d check our Facebook and Twitter feeds; we’d keep going on information overload without ever stopping to change.
Last Sunday, Dan and I were tired enough that we decided to watch some TV together in bed. I’d heard about Homeland, so I suggested it. Homeland, of course, is the Showtime series (starring Claire Danes) about terrorists and CIA operatives. But it’s also about the politics of violence. I found myself at times despising the show when it seemed to become too jingoistic. And then the show would swerve, suddenly taking an intelligent look at the hatred we’re creating with our behavior across the globe. And I’d think, “This is brilliant. Right. Good job, whoever wrote this show!”
We watched a little, we discussed where the show was going, I worried out loud that it might be losing its edge because it might have simplified into a bad guy-good guy dichotomy. And then we went to sleep. There are moments, I was thinking yesterday (before Dan sent me the text and we went into information lockdown to protect our child from ever knowing anything had happened anywhere), when I’m watching that show and I forget that I lived in New York through 9/11. I forget that I’ve always believed this will happen again, somewhere soon, somewhere close. Its like an amnesia sets in — maybe it’s a protective measure, I don’t know — but it’s as if, in order to keep going, we all have to screen out the wars and the intuitive certainty that this will keep happening unless we have real and crucial change.
How can I tell my child he’s truly safe and mean it? He’s safe today, I think, safe in our small town in the middle of Maine, home for April vacation. But (and I feel nauseated typing these words), am I sure? Will he be safe on Monday when he goes back to preschool? Will he be safe next month, or next year? The truth is that my family might get lucky: We might dodge every bullet, every bomb, every war for now. We might always be in the right place at the right time. Or we might not. Because our safety is no longer guaranteed. The world we live in today is a game of safety roulette — just spin the gun and hope you’re on the right side.