How do you explain what you cannot fathom to a 2-year-old? Suddenly, Mom has stopped helping her toddler build a skyscraper with blocks to watch a wounded skyscraper teeter on television. Without warning the skyscraper's twin tower is hit by another plane. Mom forgets she has two tots in diapers screaming for attention as she leans closer to the tube.
“Something very, very bad has happened,” I say to my 2-year-old while her younger brother goes about destroying the house. I can't move. The breaking news seems like it is right out of a movie.
I race to break up a fight and race back to the TV to hear a talking head call what is happening in New York a terrorist declaration of war on the United States. I don't ever recall getting chills before when watching other televised catastrophes, but this one is different. It is a masterfully orchestrated attack on my homeland.
A shaken President appears and in the briefest of statements says our resolve as a nation is being tested and we will pass the test. Today I'm not so sure. There is smoke billowing above the Pentagon. We learn it, too, has been struck by a plane with an apparent mission to destroy.
Now the White House is being evacuated. So is Capitol Hill.
What is happening to our country? Are we under siege? There is immediate speculation about who is responsible for executing such a daring assault on the last remaining super power.
The TV people attach plenty of caveats to their guesswork. No one wants to jump to conclusions like Oklahoma City. But the U.S. is hated by well-known adversaries with fundamentalist beliefs and plenty of foot soldiers willing to die for them.
Another bulletin: All the airports in the country are closed. I am numb, wandering aimlessly among toys and diapers. One of the skyscrapers crumbles in a heap as smoke and debris choke the air in lower Manhattan.
My sister-in-law works there. Is she OK? I'm looking for a small, missing tennis shoe when the other tower falls, leaving an eerie void in New York's famous skyline. It is a disquieting sight. A mountain of smoke engulfs the city's shoreline as the Statue of Liberty looks back forlornly from the harbor.
Reluctantly I tear myself away from the tube to run an errand with the kids. I wonder if the rest of my small, rural village is in a state of shock. I am unusually quiet with my pint-sized, backseat passengers and my 2-year-old wants to know if mommy is sad.
Overwhelmed at what has happened to untold numbers of my fellow citizens, I struggle to find the words my young daughter will understand. “Yes,” I tell her, “I am sad. A very bad thing has happened to many, many people. Planes have smashed into buildings on purpose and hurt a lot of mommies and daddies working inside.”
For a few minutes we drive on in silence. Tears well up in my eyes as I listen to radio accounts of what I have seen on TV. The emotion surprises me. I've covered countless tragedies as a reporter and never thought to cry.
It is too soon to know who has violated the United States or to know how many victims lie dead or dying. But it is soon enough to shudder from the raw injury that exposed our national vulnerability. Fear immobilizes me.
Unimaginable evil has shattered our false sense of security. On a highway overpass near home drivers spot a lone figure vigorously waving a huge American flag to the honking traffic below. He informs inquiring media he just had to do something.
The rest of us don't know what to do. “Are you better now, mommy?” my 2-year-old asks as I tuck her in at night. “I'm better, peanut,” I answer, forcing a smile through my tears at the sweet innocence here and gone.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.