Our generation's Pearl Harbor

Wednesday, September 12, 2001


By Dr. Paul Kengor

GROVE CITY, Pa. -- Sept. 11, 2001. We have a new date that will live in infamy. Years from now, Americans will vividly recall where they were on that date as they watched the World Trade Center buildings vanish and the Pentagon -- the symbol of the mightiest military power in the history of humanity -- burn.

I sat shocked, trembling in my living room, sick to my stomach, watching the unimaginable as the news kept worsening. That was a visceral reaction, I suppose, since I had no idea how to react, having only previously read about such calamities in history books, never experiencing them myself.

The weapon of choice for those who took down the trade center? No less than American airplanes, built by Americans, with American money and American passengers. Hijacked, crashed commercial airliners. One from Boston. Another near my home in Pittsburgh. At one point in the chaos, I heard a news report that another airliner was hijacked and headed somewhere else, perhaps to the Capitol in Washington. If so, I could only think in horror of President George W. Bush being forced to give the order to U.S. military pilots to be ready to shoot it down, along with all its helpless civilians, if left with no other option. That thought prompted another far less important thought, but one expected from a political scientist: Poor Bush.

Bill Clinton coasted for eight years, with nothing like this taking place. Bush inherited a recession and now faces this.

As I watched CNN, I recalled how many times I've told my students over the years that our generation has been incredibly lucky in the lack of tragedy in our young lifetimes as Americans: no major wars, no plagues, no Pearl Harbors.

Wake-up call to threat

This generation now has its Pearl Harbor. The attack is most like Pearl Harbor in this way: It is a wake-up call to the threat we face. Think: How often did terrorism come up in the presidential debates? Just as Pearl Harbor awoke us to the threat abroad, so has Sept. 11. As I watched the events unfold, I recalled my lectures on terrorism, especially the few minutes I always take to emphasize how close terrorists had come to taking down the World Trade Center in 1993, and how vulnerable we are to such attacks.

It is appropriate that this attack took place in 2001. That's because this is the threat of the 21st century. It is an awful threat -- the source is ruthless but unclear, elusive and unpredictable. It is very difficult to adequately punish an aggressor when you're not sure who the aggressor is. How ironic that in the 20th century -- the "American century" as Henry Luce called it -- the United States defended its homeland against the most formidable military powers in history. None could touch U.S. soil -- Nazis, Soviets. Yet, the damage on Sept. 11 was caused not by a great power but a small group of terrorists -- "faceless cowards" as President Bush put it in his initial response.

On the other hand, what happened on Sept. 11 was, in so many ways, much worse than Pearl Harbor. The level of evil far surpassed Pearl Harbor, particularly in its take of life -- totally innocent civilian life. In terms of deliberate murder of innocents, this is the single worst tragedy in American history.

Some will say that Pearl Harbor was worse because it meant American entry into a much larger war. But, alas, what happened on Sept. 11 may mean that as well. These attacks make clear that we are at war against terrorism.

That's the global war we now face. This was, unmistakably, an act of war brought to our doorstep. Terrorists will say we invited it. But like Japan and World War II, it was not a war we wanted.

Another analogy from another 20th century war is apt. In a key way, this war is much different from the Cold War. Indeed, what happened on Sept. 11 underscores the fact that in this war there will be no moral equivalency by Americans. The notion of moral equivalency held (ridiculously) that both the United States and the Soviet Union were equally responsible for starting the Cold War and continuing it. Neither side was more good or evil than the other. The United States could not claim a moral high ground any more than the USSR. Both were on equal moral grounding. There was a moral equivalency among the two rivals.

Harshest measures

In the 21st century war against terrorism, we will not see this moral equivalency applied by Americans to terrorists, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11. No reasonable American will object to the harshest measures taken by President Bush to retaliate against this act of barbarism. If Bush were to paraphrase FDR, to the tone that those who have asked for a fight are now about to get it, Americans would cheer him on. There will not be hand-wringing over whether we're the bad guy in the fight.

Like with Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans will now sit and wonder: What will happen next? When will we get the first body count? How will we protect our cities? What new security measures will be pursued at airports? This much we know: Those of us who witnessed this will never be the same. And, I suspect, our view of those responsible and our will to respond have forever changed as well.

Dr. Paul Kengor is a political science professor at Grove City College.

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