That morning I woke early, with a dream so real I had to write it down at the kitchen table while my family slept. Two towers had been lying on the ground. One was the Texas state capitol building, the basement exposed like a tooth socket. Standing dumbfounded at the edge of the crater, I peered down at the tiny roofless offices and hallways. Then I saw, just up the hill, the university tower laid out across the green south mall, exactly the way Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie thought it should have been in the first place. (He argued that towers were un-Texan and the University of Texas should have as its icon a vast front porch.) Close up, on its side, the tower was blinding white. Down below, the basement’s flecked green linoleum was seeing sunlight for the first time. A worker I came upon assured me that this was just a new-fangled construction technique and when it was completed, the buildings would be lifted up whole, the roofs replaced, just like new.

But of course it didn’t happen that way.

Instead, I picked up my son, Cope, early at his preschool, located at a church. Bearing shoes, socks and drawings, I led him down the hall to the sanctuary. He liked this space, its secret, quiet, darkness. Unfortunately he was lately suffering a fear of closed doors (having gotten locked in a closet at a friend’s house) so I propped open the door to the church with my foot and we sat there on the floor behind the pews, the colored light falling down in bits of red and blue.

"Something very bad happened today," I began.

I told him some bad guys stole some airplanes and drove them into some buildings on purpose. I said a lot of people were very hurt.

"I’m gonna get those bad guys!," he replied in his tough four- year-old voice.

"Yes, I know how strong you feel," I affirmed.

Then I suggested the only thing I could think of: to pray. Cope pressed his fingers together perfectly straight, touching his nose with the tips of his thumbs. He looked like a pro, though we’ve hardly every prayed together. That night, as a defiant act, we rented a comedy set at Christmas.

Flash forward a year. Now we go to elementary school, down a long hallway lined with hooks for holding backpacks and plastered with jaggy pictures of "What I Want To Learn in Kindergarten." What else has changed? What did those days and nights of staring at our TV like it Knew Something change? What did all those photos lining the streets, filling the newspapers, breaking our hearts change? What did that gaping absence, that economic buckling, that nationwide affair with the flag change?

Speaking just for my own small family, we still get up in the morning (significantly earlier than last year due to elementary school’s 7:45 tardy bell). We still pollute, contribute to landfills, use our credit card, get on airplanes, save for retirement (if you can call a 50% loss "saving"), and intend to celebrate high school graduation in 2015. There’s no flag on our car and I noticed the firemen have stopped carrying them on the back of their trucks next to the ax.

Yet, Cope’s preschool photo featured a stars-and-stripes background, quite a departure from the fake autumn scene or pristine nursery settings of the past. And his school folder (the one stuffed with his first attempts to write his name using capital AND small letters) is covered with bold type, which if he could read it says: UNITED WE STAND! As if all of us must gather together in the playground, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, and . . . do something.

Nothing, I thought at first, has changed.

Except the little matter of whether someone’s email is being secretly read because his name has a lot of vowels. Or a family chooses to drive to visit relatives because another family of similar skin hue was publicly humiliated for no good reason and asked to leave the plane. Oh, and don’t forget the hundreds detained with no charge, a trick we’re not even hiding.

And then there’s the future of our sons. Is anyone convinced that there’s a reason to send them to Iraq? As the wealthiest nation, shouldn’t we also be an example of how to act? President Bush, fellow Texan, I’m ready to use less gasoline, how about you?

If September 11th made us stronger, wiser, more sensitive, more connected, it also made us paranoid, bigoted, suspicious, distrustful and cold. What are these blood red stripes and navy-bound stars plastered everywhere if not a way to say: I can be trusted—can YOU?

Last year I cried for more than 3,000 people and their families and friends. Now I cry for the rest of us. How can we stop the machine that is us, the snake devouring its own tail? We’re an entity so large and complex that no one even knows how to turn it off. Not even the terrorists.

As a mother, I’m an example to one person, my son. I talk about how it’s dangerous to call people "bad guys." There are just people doing very bad things. They think they have a reason, I say, but they’re all wrong. That’s why it’s important to think for yourself, I add. And use your words. We’re all connected, I remind him. So we have to take responsibility. 

You must not ever hate.

Nor fear.

My son loses interest in my zeal. "Can I watch ‘Street Sharks?’" he interrupts. This is a cartoon about brothers changed through DNA mutation into half-sharks/half-teens who fight evil in all its forms with their razor sharp teeth. These swollen-headed shark boys make no sense to me, but inspire my son to zip around the living room chomping.

"Sure," I say. Maybe, I’ll learn something.


Things You Can Do:

-Get involved with your local peace movement.

-Talk to your kids and their friends about how you feel.

-Support candidates who are committed to a responsible foreign policy through the Council for a Livable World at www.clw.org.

-Vote against aggressive action toward Iraq through Move On at www.moveon.org


About the author:
Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist with work appearing most recently in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. She has taught creative writing to both children and adults. Bradford lives with her husband, their five- year-old son, two cats and a dog. Bradford tells every sleep-deprived new mother she meets: "It will get easier!" And mostly it has.  Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com.