01/12/2015 01:41 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Je Suis Charlie? For an American Family in Paris, No Easy Answers

Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images

Like parents around the world last week, my husband and I found ourselves trying to explain the inexplicable to our children. The fact that we live in Paris made it all the harder.

"Why would those men kill innocent people?" they asked. "Do the men who did this think they're bad guys, or do they think they're good?" "Were those journalists right to make those cartoons?" And perhaps toughest of all, "Is it all over now? And, "Are we safe?"

Mostly, I found no easy answers.

From our home in Paris, we discussed these questions as sirens blared and helicopters loomed. The streets were eerily empty, but lined with police, as we absorbed the news of the worst terror attack on French soil in decades. To watch it unfold on TV was to see it as a war zone; to be here in Paris was to know true fear and mistrust. It was visible in the averted gazes of Parisians; it was palpable on the Metro and on the streets as gendarmes descended by the busload.

There was no way to shield our children from these events, even if we'd wanted to. At 7 and 9, they're old enough to hear the truth and yet too young to understand. We knew they'd absorb plenty at school, so we endeavored to explain the truth as we saw it -- about the paramount importance of free speech (even when people disagree), about religion, about democracy and what it means to live in a free -- but not always equal -- society.

Not surprisingly, they saw the tragedy filtered through the lens of childhood. After-school activities and field trips were canceled; cops were stationed outside schools and parents huddled close around the gates. On Thursday, our son's class observed the minute of silence. That day he and his friends marched around the playground chanting, "On est Charlie! On est Charlie!"

It got me wondering: What does it mean to live through a national tragedy when it's not your nation? As Americans in France, we share the sense of deep sorrow and outrage and yet, as much as we love our adopted home, we are not French. As one friend put it, "Anyone can become an American. Only the French can be French."

I've watched my son try to make sense of this and parse his own identity as an American boy growing up in France. He has asked repeatedly, with a mix of fear and pride, "Will the Americans send troops here? What has Barack Obama said?" Watching Secretary John Kerry's address in French was a revelation. "He was good! He can really speak French," he beamed, perhaps pleased to see his own dual identity reflected onscreen.

And then the French, as is their way, took to the streets. As I write, hundreds of thousands are swarming Paris in an unprecedented show of national solidarity. The choice whether to join them was similarly fraught. As an activist myself who has marched on Washington, I believe deeply in the importance of speaking out and showing up for your values. But alerts from the U.S. Embassy convinced me otherwise, urging caution and outlining increased risks for Americans overseas. As much as I wanted to show my kids that we cannot live in fear -- that we must stand with our French neighbors and friends -- I realized that it simply wasn't an option. No principles, after all, will ever trump their safety.

But from the security of our apartment -- viewing the masses on our TV screen -- the spirit of the French infected us anyway. The kids spontaneously began a "march" of their own, with homemade "Je Suis Charlie" signs and T-shirts decorated with drawings of the French flag. Gone was the fear and sorrow of recent days, replaced by a sense of purpose and unity that we felt alongside those filling the magnificent boulevards.

And so we watched on TV as thousands trumpeted the values we share: resilience in the face of barbarism, free expression and peace. We felt both the national grief and the solidarity that are ours and yet not quite ours. Because while we are indeed Charlie, we are also Americans who adore -- but are not quite of -- this fabled place in its hour of great sorrow and resolve.