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How we changed

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On Sept. 11, The Observer stayed away from the news sites online, and didn't watch television at all. We couldn't bear the networks' hours of somber faux-reflection and black-background interviews with the still-grieving, the outpouring of broken hearts broken only by opportunities to sell us pickup trucks and new and improved washing detergents and jeans that promise to make our butt look amazing.

Instead, we spent quite a bit of the day on Sunday thinking about that day 10 years ago, where we were, what we were doing, how those first hours in the New World felt like a punch in the stomach, like a knife in the heart, slowly turning. We won't bore you with the details of our own When, Where and How we heard. You've all got your own memories of that moment to think back on, and — like most — The Observer's is altogether Tuesday-morning mun-dane. It would have disappeared almost immediately from our memory banks if not for the obvious.

Around 7 p.m. on Sunday night, as he does most Sunday nights, Junior sat down at the dining room table to do his homework for school. On the docket for 9/11/2011, after a dose of arithmetic and a word-search (why do they still subject kids to those? Has anybody ever learned anything from a word-search?): Social Studies homework — a sheet on which he was to record details of an interview with an Oldster in his life about their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001.

It's good, we think, that there is a whole generation of children now that remembers that day solely as history. One of the only positive things about the sureness of death is knowing that the sharp, biting pain of our collective past will, someday, pass away with the rest of us. Junior was just 2 years old in September 2001, and remembers nothing of it, thank God. We have tried, as much as possible, to keep it that way.

The questions on the paper were pretty standard: Where were you when you heard? What was your first reaction? We dutifully recited the boring old facts, and Junior dutifully scribbled. Written out in longhand, by a child who knows nothing of the terrible helplessness and uncertainty of that day — a child to whom 9/11/2001 is as dusty and distant as the Vietnam War or the fall of the Ottoman Empire — it all looked so mundane, so ordinary.

At the end of the paper came the extra credit portion, where the student was expected to formulate his own interview question. Junior, the reporter's boy, didn't disappoint. How, he asked, did 9/11 change America?

"Well," The Observer said, "it brought us all together. It made us feel like we were all Americans." Junior jotted that down, stabbed a period onto the end of it, and then closed his notebook.

There are times when the hardest part of being a parent is telling your child the truth.

"Wait," The Old Man said, "I wasn't finished."

Junior was puzzled for a second, but then opened his notebook and added a tail to his period, transforming that bright, declarative statement into — as history often is — something much more complicated.

"But it also made us afraid," we told him, our son of the New World, "and since then, that fear has made us more divided than ever."

Perhaps you read in the paper, if you live in Hot Springs, that the mayor over there said that if her two sons had been on those planes (one assumes she meant the two that brought down the World Trade Center), 9/11 would never have happened.

It was a surprising revelation to The Observer: Some people didn't get it. It was mass murder, carried out by pawns of men who promised them paradise. The men and women on the planes headed to New York were innocents who couldn't conceive of such evil. They weren't a bunch of sissies who let themselves be incinerated. How could anyone be so untouched by the events of that day to presume otherwise?

Maybe the mayor should do a little homework of her own, like Junior.

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