Democracy and Homeland Security: Strategies, Controversies, and Impact
Two Years Later: Children’s Understanding of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks
I remember waking up to the sound of the phone ringing.
I remember my husband’s voice as he told his boss, yes, he would turn on
the television. I remember him calling me into the living room: “Kathy, something’s
Two and a half years after the terrorist attacks, scholars are still trying to understand what happened. For many of us, September 11 became a catalyst for creativity, and as a result, volumes of published reports on the impact and meaning of September 11 have become available. Among these reports, a growing body of literature examining the public’s reaction to September 11 has emerged. National surveys have looked beyond those victimized by the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and considered the impact of September 11 on individuals far removed from Ground Zero.1 But even when scholars have considered the general public’s reaction to September 11, little attention has been given to children, a significant demographic of the general public when we assume them to have a role in the future of our democracy.
Reports on the reactions of children and adolescents to the events of September 11 are available, but most published findings have been based on parental or other adult perceptions of children’s reactions.2 According to the parental reports analyzed in one national study, children’s reactions included symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other signs of mental distress.3 In another study, parents and other adults described the children in their households as still upset by the events of September 11 one to two months after the attacks took place.4 A year later, parents reported that their children continued to express fears about terrorism.5
Of primary concern to many parents in these national studies was their children’s exposure to media coverage of the terrorist attacks. Many parents indicated they made efforts to limit their children’s access to television in the aftermath of September 11.6 Even with the best of intentions, however, few children were likely to escape the ubiquitous images of planes flying into buildings, people running away, crying and shouting, or people injured or dying. In a study specifically examining children’s media exposure to September 11, the authors reported that a majority of children in the sample saw numerous images related to the terrorist attacks.7 The authors also reported an association between media exposure and symptoms of PTSD.
Despite the apparent interest in children’s media exposure
to September 11 and the investigation into children’s reactions via parental
reports, very little is known regarding children’s actual knowledge of the
terrorist attacks or what has influenced that knowledge. Few studies have
asked children directly what they know about what happened on
The purpose of this chapter is to present the results of
a qualitative analysis of children’s responses to a series of questions about
September 11 and to begin a dialogue that considers the following: How do
This study extends an ongoing multiuniversity investigation
into parent-child communication about peace and war and children’s understanding
of these concepts. In the present study, sixty children living in
The data analysis was qualitative. Recurring themes were identified as they emerged naturally from the data. As themes were noted, they were evaluated using two criteria: internal homogeneity (the extent that the data within a specific theme belong together) and external heterogeneity (the differences between themes—their distinctiveness from one another). I confirmed the meaningfulness and accuracy of the placement of data within each theme, working back and forth between the data and the identified themes to determine best fit. Peer examination and triangulation between two student raters and myself were used to help ensure the internal validity of the qualitative analysis. To help ensure external validity, specific quotes from the children were used to illustrate identified themes.
The goal of qualitative research is to emphasize the view
of the participant and to examine the subject in question (in this case the
events of September 11) from his/her perspective. At its best, qualitative
research gives voice to participants who might not otherwise be heard. At
least two limitations to this approach, however, must be addressed before
any results can be presented. First, generalizing from this small, nonrandom
I have tried to emphasize these children’s authentic voices, even as I categorized their responses into themes. I will share with you their words and thoughts as they shared them with us. You will hear from an anonymous 4-year-old boy, anxious to return to his play, a 15-year-old girl struggling with the enormity of the terrorist attacks, and a 12-year-old boy willing to admit his confusion about what happened; their anonymity, however, makes their answers no less real than those of your son, your niece, or your neighbor.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
So how do these children describe the events of
It is important to note that even among the seven children
who did show an understanding of the events, some prompting was necessary.
To ask the children about September 11, we created a series of three questions,
increasingly more descriptive. The first of these was “Do you know anything
about what happened in
In their descriptions of what happened, two major themes emerged: (1) planes crashed into buildings (restating what was already described in the question) and (2) people got hurt or killed. A 4-year-old boy said it this way: “The terrorists were killing everybody. They killed the pilots and crashed. They killed the pilots. The terrorists killed the pilots and crashed the planes. And it was a big tower. Lots of people died, everybody in the plane, not just in the towers.” A 6-year-old girl stated, more succinctly, “It’s when the planes went into the buildings and a lot of people got hurt.”
Even fewer of these children reported any knowledge of who was involved. “Bad guys” and “terrorists” were mentioned as the perpetrators, but only one child specifically named Osama bin Laden as someone involved in what happened. The few children who offered explanations of why the attacks occurred described their understanding of the perpetrators’ motives. According to one 6-year-old girl, “They wanted to hurt people.” A boy of the same age stated, “Osama bin Laden doesn’t like our people.” One 5-year-old child explained the terrorist attacks differently than his peers. When asked who was involved and why the attacks happened, he identified George Bush and stated, “He got the terrorists mad.”
The twenty-two children in middle childhood (7 to 10 years old) were much more likely than their younger counterparts to say they knew something about the terrorist attacks on September 11. Of these eleven boys and eleven girls, only seven of them needed the most descriptive question that referred to the planes running into buildings.
In their descriptions of what happened, three themes emerged:
(1) the destruction of the attacks, (2) the location of the attacks, and
(3) the deaths from the attacks. “I remember that there were planes crashing
into different parts of the
A few of these children did not know who was involved or
could not remember any specific names, but most of the children mentioned
the perpetrators and/or victims as being involved in the terrorist attacks,
and many of them named Osama bin Laden as the person behind the attacks. “Well,
mainly the citizens of . . .
In a few of the children’s responses, confusion between
Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and their roles in the September 11 terrorist
attacks was evident. One 9-year-old girl said, “I know that . . . some Iraqi
people were mad at us and they crashed the planes . . . and killed lots of
people.” A boy the same age stated, “the one that was the leader of . . .
Some children indicated they did not know why the terrorist
attacks happened. Of those who did provide an explanation, two themes emerged.
First, the terrorists attacked out of anger with or resentment of the
Second, the terrorists attacked out of their own needs.
When asked why the attacks happened, one 10-year-old girl stated, “Because
Osama bin Laden wanted to show the
Not surprisingly, the eighteen children, eleven boys and
seven girls, in the adolescent group also demonstrated an understanding of
the terrorist attacks on
Like their younger counterparts in middle childhood, the
adolescents described the death and destruction associated with the attacks
and where the attacks took place. However, they often included details not
typically seen in the answers of the children in middle childhood. “Two .
. . Boeing 747s crashed into the North and
Some of the older adolescents also added what they knew
of the terrorists involved. “It was a group of terrorists, I believe, from
I know that . . . men of . . . a different culture, different ideals, came to our country cause . . . they thought that they knew our reputation of being greedy, of being mean people, and decided that they will stop us by killing . . . thousands of innocent people that didn’t deserve to die and they did something that I am not even sure they believed themselves. They were just told that they should believe. The leading man, Osama bin Laden, who said that this is worth dying for wouldn’t even put his own life at risk.
When asked who was involved in the events of September 11,
the adolescents described both the victims of the terrorist attacks and the
perpetrators, again naming Osama bin Laden as someone behind the attacks.
A few of their answers also reflected a broader understanding than what was
typically in the answers of the younger children. “The terrorists and the
innocent people and I even say . . . all of
Like some of the children in middle childhood, many of the
adolescents attributed the terrorist attacks to the terrorists’ anger at
or resentment of the
A few adolescents, mostly older boys, also provided broader
sociopolitical explanations for the attacks. September 11 happened “because
the enemies and terrorists don’t like our support of
The vast majority of the children, at least those 8 and older, demonstrated some understanding of the terrorist attacks. At the same time, many of their answers reflected confusion about who was involved and why the attacks happened. Some of the older children and adolescents included the possible motives of the terrorists as well as the role of international relations. But how did they come to these conclusions? What influenced their public opinion of these events? To try to find out, we primarily asked the children two questions. The first of these was “How did you learn about this?” The second question began with “Did you see anything about this on TV?” If answered affirmatively, a series of questions about their television viewing was asked, including when and where they were watching, who watched with them, and what, if anything, they talked about as they watched.
When the children in early childhood were asked how they learned about September 11, most of them identified their parents as their only source of information. Even when specifically asked about whether they saw anything about the events on television, only two of the seven reported seeing anything specific. “I remember being able to see the plane crash into the building and the building blew up,” stated a 6-year-old boy. The lack of reported television viewing may be a result of such young children simply not remembering what they saw on TV two years earlier, when they were even younger. It may also be a result of parents limiting their youngest children’s exposure to the media coverage, as was reported in some of the national studies.8 Whatever the case, according to these children at least, their parents were a primary influence on how they came to understand what happened on September 11.
In contrast, most of the children in middle childhood reported
two sources when asked how they learned of the terrorist attacks: the television
news and/or their parents. A few of these children specifically described
how they first learned about the attacks. A 10-year-old boy said this: “Well,
I walked home one day with my brother and my sister, and I came home, and
my mom and dad were watching the news. And I put my book bag down and the
news was on and then they said there was like a kindergarten class on the
bottom of . . . the
When asked specifically whether they saw anything about the September 11 attacks on television, most of the children in middle childhood responded positively. According to their reports, they typically saw coverage of the events on television when at home, watching the news with their parents. These children indicated that they did not really talk to their parents as they watched the events unfold on the television. “Everyone was just kind of silent,” said one 10-year-old boy. “We didn’t really talk about it. I just heard Mom, like, gasping,” stated a 9-year-old boy. Of those who did talk to their parents while they watched, the conversations seemed to center on the tragedy itself or concerns about war. When asked what she and her parents talked about, one 10-year-old girl said, “Just that it was bad.” And a 7-year-old girl remembered saying, “I wish war would end.”
Unlike their younger counterparts who continued to emphasize
their parents as a primary source of information, the adolescents overwhelmingly
reported learning of the September 11 attacks from the television news. The
younger adolescents (11 to 14 years old) indicated they first saw news of
the attacks on television at home with their families on September 11. The
older adolescents (15 to 18 years old) reported first seeing news of the
attacks on television in school with their classmates and teachers on the
day of the attack. The adolescents reported seeing repeated coverage on the
day of and many days after. Conversations, as the adolescents remembered
them, primarily focused on trying to figure out what happened and why, and
what the attacks would mean for the
Although it is impossible to say exactly how television and parents influenced the children’s public opinion of September 11 (e.g., whether one was more important regarding the children’s feelings about the attacks or another more important in terms of information), I think we can conclude that both parents and television played a role in shaping these children’s understanding of what happened. It also seems reasonable that television may have been a more important source for the adolescents (11 and older) and parents a more important source for the children (10 and younger). Other studies have reported similar trends for children and adolescents who described where they learned about war.9
Of course, the idea that many of these children and adolescents learned about the terrorist attacks from the news is in no way surprising. According to one national study, 90 percent of Americans got their news about the terrorist attacks from the television.10 In many cases, as the adults in the household were watching, so were the children. But what of their reactions to what they saw? How do the responses of the children in our study compare to the responses of the public in general?
The children in this study were asked to describe how they felt about the terrorist attacks when they first heard about them. Like their adult counterparts, almost all of them reported negative feelings. Children in all age groups described feelings of sadness and anger. Said a 5-year-old girl, “I feeled sad.” A 10-year-old boy stated, “I felt really sad, at that time, I did. My sister, she had, like, tears in her eyes.” One 9-year-old girl reported feeling mad “because someone hurt people.” A 15-year-old girl stated, “Angry, I thought it was really dumb.”
Fear and confusion were also mentioned by the children in middle childhood and adolescence. A 10-year-old boy said, “I was kinda confused. And at the same time, kinda worried, cause, I think everyone was a little worried cause they were, like, afraid that a plane would crash into our school.” Similarly, a girl his same age said, “I felt scared. I was only in the third grade and I thought maybe we were going to die, but I wasn’t sure.”
For most of the adolescents, however, the primary reaction
was one of shock. “Um, how could this happen? What did we do to have this
happen?” asked one 12-year-old boy. A 16-year-old boy said, “I felt odd that
terrorism could be something so huge. And I guess that, you know,
These responses will likely resonate with most Americans. The national surveys I reviewed typically focused on adult psychological reactions, measuring PTSD symptoms and stress reactions, in many cases shortly after the terrorist attacks had occurred. According to Schuster and colleagues, a sizable majority of their participants reported symptoms of stress three to five days after the attacks.11 Even a year later, many Americans continued to report feelings of anger, sadness, and fear.12
Other studies described reactions to the terrorist attacks in terms of increased spirituality13 and patriotism.14 Spirituality did not emerge as a theme in the children’s responses; for example, none of the children in this study made references to prayer, God, or religious institutions when asked about September 11. The questions we asked, however, were open-ended. In other studies, participants were asked to think specifically about their religiosity or prayer.
Likewise, children did not describe themselves as patriotic,
although one or two mentioned they were proud of the firefighters involved
in September 11 as well as those on the plane that crashed in
The children’s reactions to the terrorist attacks have implications
for scholars interested in what happens when these children become adults.
As with other generations, this one will have its own baggage; it is very
likely that children who experienced September 11, even those far removed
from the actual violence of the attacks, will bring with them to adulthood
worldviews shaped by the enormity of this historical event. What those worldviews
might be, I can only speculate. Like many of the adolescents, I wonder about
what happens next. What do the responses of these children growing up in
the shadow of
As a scholar of child development, this final question is
the one I am probably least prepared to answer. However, as a member of this
intellectual community, one that values inquiry and reflection, I feel compelled
to at least begin the dialogue. Of primary concern, for me, is the children’s
sense of belonging to a victimized group. As previously mentioned, many of
the older children and adolescents described who was involved in the attacks
and why they happened in terms of “us” and “them.” According to some theorists,
this type of division can lead to the dehumanizing of “the other,” an important
component of societal violence.16 I would argue
that the current
Many of them, for example, confused Osama bin Laden with
Saddam Hussein. Others mentioned the terrorist attacks when answering questions
about the war in
When I hear these comments, I wonder again, what happens
next? What does it mean for these children to link September 11 and the war
My sincerest hope is that this study gave the participating
children an opportunity to express their feelings and to begin thinking about
what growing up in the shadow of September 11 will mean for them. Today’s
dialogue actually began months ago with sixty children from northeast
1. Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press, “American Psyche Reeling from Terror Attacks,” in Survey Reports (Washington,
D.C.: Pew Research Center, September 19, 2001), http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=3,
retrieved March 28, 2003); William E. Schlenger et al., “Psychological
Reactions to Terrorist Attacks: Findings from the National Study of Americans’ Reactions
to September 11,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288,
no. 5 (2002): 581; and Mark A. Schuster et al., “A national survey of Stress Reactions after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,”
14. Chris L. Coryn, James M. Beale, and Krista M. Myers, “Response to September 11: Anxiety, Patriotism, and Prejudice in the Aftermath of Terror,” Current Research in Social Psychology 9, no. 12 (2004): 175.
16. Jodie Kliman and Roxana Llerena-Quinn, “Dehumanizing and Rehumanizing Responses to September 11,” Journal of Systemic Therapies 21, no. 3 (2002): 11; and Vamik Volkan, “September 11 and Societal Regression,” Group Analysis 35, no. 4 (2002): 458.