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Harry Potter, September 11th and Me

(By Elliott Walker, TODAY Producer)It seems strange now, but on September 11, 2001, I had barely heard of Harry Potter.  Strange both because of how global my favorite skinny boy hero is now (I just noticed an Urdu translation for sale on Amazon); and because I love the transporting literature of fantasy enough to have re-read THE LORD OF THE RINGS at least ten times and even, in a fit of geeky t

(By Elliott Walker, TODAY Producer)

It seems strange now, but on September 11, 2001, I had barely heard of Harry Potter.  Strange both because of how global my favorite skinny boy hero is now (I just noticed an Urdu translation for sale on Amazon); and because I love the transporting literature of fantasy enough to have re-read THE LORD OF THE RINGS at least ten times and even, in a fit of geeky teenage passion, to have taught myself to write in Elvish runes (a separate alphabet J. R. R. Tolkien invented for his trilogy). 

I missed Harry Potter's first three years of published life, but after September 11, Harry came to mean a lot to me.  Because I lived in downtown Manhattan, on September 11 I was one of the people who saw the first jet hit the North Tower, a few blocks away.  Shortly afterwards, back in my apartment phoning in my account of the explosion to the TODAY show, I looked out my bedroom window and saw the second plane hurtling full power across New York harbor, flying low, tilted almost sideways, apparently coming right for me.  When it passed over my building to pierce the South Tower, my reaction became a tiny piece of NBC News's coverage of the day. 

Our 9/11 trifecta was complete when my family - my husband, our one- and two-year-old and their nanny - saw both towers fall from a nearby park and were engulfed in a storm cloud of dust and debris.  Just when we thought the world was ending, we were rescued by the private gumption of a New York Waterway ferry, put ashore in New Jersey, and faced with the task of getting on with our lives. 

Where does Harry come in?  Although our family was uninjured, my husband and I found it unexpectedly difficult to move past the experience.  The shock we still felt and the questions we couldn't answer led us to call an old friend who is also a Navy SEAL officer.  He offered the best advice I got anywhere on how to cope.  "Do your job," he said, "and read Harry Potter."

So we did.  At first it was escapism - something akin to what J. K. Rowling has said the books were for her - a comfortingly different world to go to, filled with real but different concerns.  As she published more books, I continued to love the vision and the magic, but I also came to crave the message, and to believe that these are, in fact, the quintessential books of our time, a sort of moral compass in an age of terror. 

I'll be the first to acknowledge that this may or may not be what J. K. Rowling intended.  It's worth remembering that she began writing Harry years before September 11 and says she knew all along how the story ended.  My other hero, J. R. R. Tolkien, used to insist that THE LORD OF THE RINGS was not the allegory for the Second World War that many people believed.  Others argue that great storytelling, no matter how otherworldly the setting, will always feel that it is somehow intimately about us, the readers.  The author sets the hero his quest and his enemies, but we connect the dots, filling in the contemporary names and faces ourselves.

I accept that and do not claim to know anything about Jo Rowling's views on terrorism or Islam or American foreign policy.  But you can't read these books and mistake the abhorrence this former Amnesty International staffer feels for torture (which she termed one of the three Unforgivable Curses), her impatience with bigotry ("the thing I detest most," she told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY), or her disdain for claims of superiority based on social position, "purity" (of blood or intentions), or dominion over others.

In the most entertaining and unpreachy way, the Harry Potter books celebrate physical courage, friendship, determining your own destiny through your own choices, and the differences between us that spice things up.  The biggest-hearted and most open-minded character in the books is arguably Hagrid, a half-Giant with friends from many species that most people would call monsters.  The most alluring character, the beautiful French girl Fleur Delacoeur, isn't full-human, either. (Remember that Veela grandmother?)  I won't spoil anything by noting that Dobby the house elf, a former slave from an oppressed underclass of the Wizarding world, couldn't possibly play a more pivotal role in the last book. 

On the darker side, we see true sociopathy at work as even the most devoted followers of Voldemort are brutally punished at his whim; we see corruption and careerism turn the Ministry of Magic into a sort of secret police; and we see gossip and cowardice turn friend against friend.  Divide-and-conquer is one of Voldemort's more subtle tools.   

Almost six years after September 11, Harry is a treasured friend to my children as well as to me.  They were very young the day they watched religious hatred blow up their father's office building; they've also grown up with war on television, seeing images of America and her enemies acting in ways that I often can't explain.  Yes, some of the things in the Harry Potter books are scary, particularly THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, but I've come to think that's part of life.  Children enjoy being scared occasionally (so do I) and on the whole, I'd rather have them slightly scared while absorbing J. K. Rowling's finely shaded blacks, whites and grays than listening to the loud voices in our world (on both sides) who have all the answers and would have them believe that We are Good and They are Evil. 

So I will read them HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, discuss it carefully with them, and continue to feel that, while J. K. Rowling may not have been writing ABOUT us at all, she has definitely been writing FOR us.