Editor’s note: We all struggle to process our thoughts and emotions when our communities face an act of mass violence. A year and a half ago, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Terry Keleher wrote a public letter to his son, explaining the emotions with which our nation struggled following the attack. As news unfolds about the explosions at the Boston Marathon, we resurface the essay.
On a sunny September morning, before you were born, everything suddenly changed. Some people attacked the United States by seizing control of airplanes and steering them towards big buildings. The planes and buildings exploded and thousands of people were killed. Everyone was in shock. Families lost mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and even kids. I felt really sad, scared and angry.
When something bad happens and our emotions are raw, it’s hard to know what to do. Sometimes we want to strike back and get revenge. But that can create more problems.
When roosters fight, they keep attacking until one of them dies. That’s all they know how to do. Fortunately for us, our human brains—and hearts—allow us to create more choices. After the violent September 11 attacks, we made good choices and bad ones.
People did heroic things. Many helped with rescue operations and sacrificed their lives while saving others. We comforted and supported families who lost loved ones. We created makeshift monuments with photos and drawings of people missing. We worked to make things safe again. We united and mourned as a nation.
But some people turned their fears and anger against each other. People attacked others simply because they were of a different race, religion or nationality, or because they dressed or talked differently. Immigrants were beaten up by individuals and rounded up by our government. Many were put in jails and sent back to their home countries without getting to say goodbye to their children.
Sadly, the U.S. spent the next 10 years waging two major wars. We bombed other countries and tortured people. Hundreds of thousands of people were hurt or killed. Millions lost their homes. Brave soldiers were ordered back to the battlefields. We’re still fighting today.
We’ve spent billions of dollars on faraway wars instead of building and fixing our neighborhood schools, health care clinics, rail lines and flood levies. Back home, millions of people have lost their houses, their jobs and their health care.
We learn many of life’s most important lessons when we’re young. We learn to love each other, help one another and to share and play fair. We also learn to understand and respect each other, to cooperate and to apologize and forgive.
These simple lessons are based on our most deeply shared values—values like love, fairness, sharing, cooperation, inclusion and unity.
When we forget or don’t learn how to put these values into practice, that’s when bad things happen. There’s more hatred, bullying, violence, wars, racism, greed and poverty.
Imagine what it could look like if we built our whole world around our best values.
Every child could be healthy, safe and secure. Every family could have great schools, homes, health care and jobs. All neighborhoods could be friendly and fun. We could learn to work out our differences and practice peacemaking instead of rushing to war. We could treat each person and nation fairly.
As you grow older, you’ll have many opportunities to make positive change. What values will you put into practice? And what actions can you and others take today to help build a better future for everyone?
Answering these questions may be, in the long run, the best way to honor those whose lives were so tragically cut short. Remembering the day the world changed for the worse, can remind us how to work together to change the world for the better.
Terry Keleher is the father of a 7-year-old son and directs the racial justice training program of Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center. The Applied Research Center is part of America Healing, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, working to improve life outcomes for vulnerable children by promoting racial equity and eliminating barriers to opportunity.