Remembering Our Generation’s Pearl Harbor

(Editor’s note: This is a slightly updated version of a commentary I posted a few years ago on the anniversary of 9/11.)

Has it really been 19 years since the September 11th attacks?  Just consider that this year’s college seniors cannot remember watching live as the World Trade Towers burned and collapsed.

Perhaps for them, and those who will come afterward, it will be as it was for us and Pearl Harbor.  Growing up, I knew well the significance of December 7th, the image of the U.S.S. Arizona listing badly as thick black smoke poured from the ship and the immortal words of President Roosevelt declaring that the date would “live in infamy.”

But the event was not burned into my consciousness like it was for my parents.  For them, Pearl Harbor and World War II were defining moments, forever changing the course of this country and its people.  Victory came at great cost, but it also established America as a world power and primary guardian of freedom.

It’s often said that 9/11 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor, a contemptible attack on unsuspecting people designed to shake the country to its core, questioning its rightful place and duty. The country passed that test 79 years ago, but we don’t know yet about 9/11 because the war is ongoing.

As columnist Robert Samuelson said after 9/11, maybe this is not a war we’re in, but rather a permanent condition.  We may be able to root out those responsible for the attacks, but we cannot expect to eliminate the anger of terrorism for all time. For the terrorists, there will always be new generations of recruits and new grievances.

At least our parents and grandparents were able to witness the destruction of its enemies and the cessation of hostilities. There were no half measures. The full and unconditional commitment to the effort led to victory and peace.

We don’t know yet if or when that will happen in a post 9/11 world.  Recent events suggest, just as Samuelson predicted, that the fight against terrorism is a state of being on a global battlefield where even a troubled misfit can use a truck to plow through a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants, killing 84 innocent people in the name of Islamic jihad.

How does one fight and win a war against that?  What are the markers that define victory or defeat?  What are the sacrifices that must be made in order to prevail?

We know we have to be committed to victory. As the military strategist Karl Von Clausewitz said, “The minute we begin to carry out our decision, a thousand doubts arise about the dangers which might develop if we have been seriously mistaken in our plan.  A feeling of uneasiness, which often takes hold of a person about to perform something great, will take possession of us and from this uneasiness to indecision and from there to half measures.”

That’s fair warning for what’s ahead, even 19 years after the attacks.

No rational thinking person would wish to return to the time just after 9/11, yet it’s undeniable that a wounded America pulled together.  For a moment, at least, we pushed aside our differences and set a laser-like focus on our commonality as Americans and our unanimity of purpose.

Over time, wounds begin to heal, differences inevitably resurface and a sense of normalcy returns, but September 11th is still there, a permanent fixture of our national identity that, when we pause to remember, reminds us of our generation’s calling to preserve, protect and defend our great nation.


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