WASHINGTON – The man in the camouflage vest stands with gun-toting goons and, in the background, a missile launcher sits atop a flatbed truck. In the video, he gesticulates wildly and shouts in Arabic.
“I swear to God,” he says. “As we struck France and its stronghold Paris, we will strike America and its stronghold Washington.”
Among those who got the message: my 11-year-old daughter. “Dad,” she asked when she got home from school, “are terrorists going to attack Washington?”
What to say?
Before I had a child, I reacted to this sort of thing in the customary way. I freaked out.
After the 9/11 attacks, I dutifully stocked up on rolls of duct tape and N-95 masks, as the government recommended. I bought one of those “escape hoods” they stockpile in the White House and Capitol and, after my colleague across the aisle opened an envelope with white powder, I talked my doctor into prescribing me a just-in-case supply of Cipro. The Washington Post, helpfully, handed out survival kits containing whistles and small pouches of water. To blow off steam, I threw a party and handed out petri dishes filled with vodka Jell-O and test tubes of Bubonic Tonic, Pox on the Rocks, Cipro Sippers and the Evil Dewars.
But parents can’t indulge our fears. We’re supposed to make our kids feel safe, even if we don’t feel safe ourselves. I told my daughter that terrorists would love to attack Washington, but we, unlike the French, are an ocean away from Syria, that lots of smart people are working very hard to stop the terrorists, and that these terrorists are not very sophisticated. Even if they did attack here, I told her, the risk to her was tiny. One-hundred thirty people died in Paris, but that means 99.999 percent of people there survived.
The talk seemed to soothe her. Unexpectedly, it also soothed me.
Thousands of parents must have had some version of that conversation. “You know what sucks?” my friend Kathryn posted on Facebook. “Explaining to your kids on the way to school why they shouldn’t be worried after they just heard on the radio that DC is an ISIS target for another terrorist attack.”
To this, my friend Fred replied: “Yep. Once you’ve done that, can you explain to me why I shouldn’t be worried?”
Another person shared the viral video from France’s Canal+ TV showing an interview of a French father and his young son at a makeshift shrine in Paris:
Boy: Bad people aren’t very nice. And you need to be very careful because you need to move house.
Father: No, don’t worry, we don’t have to move. France is our home.
Boy: But what about the baddies, dad?
Father: There are baddies everywhere. There are bad guys everywhere.
Boy: They’ve got guns. They can shoot us because they’re very, very bad, daddy.
Father: They’ve got guns but we have flowers.
Boy: But flowers don’t do anything. They’re for … they’re for … they’re for …
Father: Look, everyone is laying flowers here.
Father: It’s to fight against the guns.
Boy: Is it for protection?
Father: That’s right.
Boy: And the candles too?
Father: They’re so we don’t forget the people who have gone.
Boy: Oh. The flowers and candles are there to protect us?
Journalist: Do you feel better now?
Boy: Yes, I feel better.
That father-son exchange is a more powerful answer to Islamic State than any missile strike.
Kathryn told her kids essentially what I told my daughter – and this, I later learned, is roughly what the experts recommend. Children of middle-school age would dismiss rosy assurances that there’s no danger, but they need to be reassured that the risk is low, and that grownups are doing everything they can to protect them.
By modeling this calm response for kids, we may discover that we calm ourselves.
I had no such perspective in 2001, when the chatter was of anthrax and nerve gas and dirty bombs. This time, the bad guys don’t (yet) seem to pose an existential threat from weapons of mass destruction. Being rational about the current threat also helps to recognize when others aren’t – such as those hysterical over the danger posed by Syrian refugees. Certainly, this is a risk. But there’s a greater risk that war-on-Islam rhetoric will radicalize more would-be terrorists at home and abroad.
Living in the capital, I worry about terrorism, but I no longer panic. For this I have my child to thank.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.