The Fears That Keep You Awake At Night

All the talk this week of terrorism and thwarted attacks got me to thinking, as I often do, about the perils of living in Washington with a young family.

My regular gig at NPR is covering wars and terrorism, so I spend a lot of time talking with officials at the Pentagon and the CIA and on Capitol Hill. And I sometimes ask them: What keeps you awake at night?

What's scary is that nearly all of them will tell you the same thing: another terrorist attack.

And then they'll tell you: "It's not a question of if, but when."

Then they'll tell you their biggest nightmare, which of course is that terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon.

I dutifully nod and scribble down notes and file my story — and then I go home and I kiss my sons and tell them a story about dinosaurs or superheroes.

All of this was driven home on Christmas Day. I was having a true Norman Rockwell moment with my family — complete with a roast browning in the oven and "Silent Night" playing in the background, and all of us zooming around on the new scooters that Santa brought.

Then my Blackberry lit up with news that a guy had just tried to blow up a plane en route to Detroit.

There is the journalist part of me that immediately feels the hair on the back of my neck rise and starts thinking of all the sources I need to call.

But there is also the Mom part of me that pauses for just a moment to remember those words: "not if, but when."

It is enough for me to shoot my husband The Look — The Look that means, should we be thinking about packing up and moving the kids to, I don't know, the South Pacific?

I mean, how can I — a mother who frets over things like flu shots and diaper rash and whether my 4-year-old holds his pencil correctly — how can I rationalize living here?

My kids, it should be said, are impervious to the danger. They listen to me reporting on the radio and absorb just bits and pieces.

My younger son asked me the other day what Gen. McChrystal looks like. My older son's teachers tell me that on the playground, instead of games like tag or "cowboys and Indians" he suggests playing "Taliban versus good soldiers."

That one made me laugh. But it also made me worry.

I don't know what the answer is, aside from having a little faith that somehow things will turn out OK.

That, and then there was one other snippet I caught in the news this week: The South Pacific was just hit by several powerful earthquakes and a tsunami.

I guess the lesson is that once you're a parent, if you go looking for it, you'll find that danger lurks everywhere.

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