In some weird way, it was Thanksgiving dinner that was most disquieting. The week before, the president had been killed, murdered, shot in the head in the back seat of that long black convertible. And then, incredibly, the man they said had shot the president had been shot himself, gut-shot in front of everyone with a look on his face of bewildered pain. The world had blown open, then narrowed to one long funeral procession in the nation's capitol, history distilled to a nervous horse with an empty saddle and the thick mesh of the First Lady's veil, her swollen eyes dark stars behind it.
Then, as though it had never happened, the next week there were the yams and the pies and the turkey, brown and savory as ever. The wishbone. The white tablecloth. A new president. Things seemed back to normal as 1963 crept away.
But what if normal was terrible all the time, one savage rip of history, one unimaginable string of indelible violent events after another? What if, in one generation, a nation moved from a notion of childhood largely grounded in peaceful prosperity to one in which children lived and learned in a constant atmosphere of evil and upheaval?
That is what has happened to children in the United States in the last year.
First there was the day they came home from school to discover that planes had destroyed all of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, taking thousands of lives in the process. Next they heard on the news how some mysterious evildoer was sending letters filled with poison powder through the mail, killing his correspondents, shutting down TV-network mailrooms and politicians' offices. Summer came round and every other day seemed to bring a story of a missing, sometimes murdered, child. School started again with rumblings of war. Those were stilled by gunshots, the presence in the suburbs of some all-too-real bogeyman who used his gun to pick off ordinary people in ordinary places, at the gas pumps, in the mall parking lot, vanishing afterward like the omnipotent villain in a comic book.
"Your children are not safe anywhere at any time," he said in a letter to police. And while parents insisted that everything would be all right, those darker words might have been the true motto for our new age.
The irony is that in some ways it's never been safer to be young in America. Car seats, parental controls on the Internet, window guards, warning labels on music and movies, immunizations, cabinet locks, nutrition. Abuse that once passed unnoticed or unspoken is now openly discussed, even prosecuted: so-called corporal punishment that was really a beating, so-called confabulations that were real stories of molestation.
Yet there's a weird sort of cognitive dissonance between that attenuated consciousness of childhood safety and the Zeitgeist of our dangerous age. Perhaps it was reflected in the behavior of Madelyne Toogood, the mother caught on tape walloping her 4-year-old daughter as though child abuse were an aerobic exercise. The video eye watched as the woman hit the child, and hit her, and hit her again. Then she put her in the child safety seat in the car, and hit her some more.
A twisted metaphor for a time in which we keep our children away from gory movies and then have to keep them inside so they will not be picked off with a semi-automatic weapon. "They want their recess back," one elementary-school teacher in Maryland told CNN. No illusions that we are alone in this: just ask the parents of Tel Aviv, Kosovo and Belfast. No illusions that there were no childhood worries of the past. All of us of a certain age remember cold war duck-and-cover exercises beneath our elementary-school desks. David Brudnoy, the radio-talk-show host in Boston, recalled being sent to play in the basement during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, hidden away from airborne germs that would cause paralysis or death. Then we all got polio vaccines, and the civil-defense signs grew dim and rusty while the U.S.S.R. crumbled from within.
The president was assassinated and there was no doubt that it was a great cataclysm. At the time we suspected it was the greatest we would ever know. Our mothers wept, openly and unashamedly. The adults telegraphed the horrible importance of the occasion.
Now the adults telegraph the horrible importance of one horribly important event after another. What kind of psychological price will these children pay for formative years in which a fireball of plane and passengers exploded within one of the nation's most triumphant landmarks, in which some of them missed soccer games or birthday trips to McDonald's because a man with a rifle was waiting to shoot passing strangers? Any parent who's realized that what you say to the toddler is written on the teenager can tell you it's too soon to tell. But it can't be good. Most of us remember waking late on a crisp clear morning to blinding white beneath the window: no school because of snow! Now there are children who will remember school's being canceled because of a rain of bullets. The new normal: a sniper day.