I was seven years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I
was with my parents and sisters driving home from a visit to my paternal
grandparents' homestead. The car radio was on. An announcer
interrupted the music to tell us what had happened.
"We're in it now," I remember my father saying. "We're in the war
When we got home, we phoned my grandparents to see if they had
heard the news, to see how they were doing with it.
There was, in my mind then, a satisfying symmetry about our war
with the Japanese. They started it when they attacked Pearl Harbor; we
ended it when we attacked Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Last week, Sen. Hagel, among many others, called the attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon "the second Pearl Harbor." And with
some justice. Both were sneak attacks coming with no warning, no
declarations of war. Dec. 7, 1941 and Sep. 11, 2001both dates that
will live in infamy.
But there are differences:
There may well be more casualties from last week's attack than the
approximately 2300 killed at Pearl Harbor. In a poignant statement that
showed a more appealing and vulnerable side of tough-talking NY Mayor
Giuliani, he said the final death count will be "more than any of us can
In 1941, Pearl Harbor was a world away, a place we had to go to
our world atlas to find. But New York and Washington are the most
famously American places in the country. And the newsreel pictures of
our battered battleships, shocking as they were, can't match the
real-time nightmare images of WTC towers collapsing, people jumping from
windows 80 stories above the pavement.
But the most important difference is the one it's most dangerous
to forget: As of this writing, we don't know what country to hold
responsible. At Pearl Harbor, the attacking country's identity couldn't
be more clear: the Japanese planes dropping bombs and torpedoes were
emblazoned with Japanese insignia. We declared war the next day.
But this is more ambiguous. Patriotic outrage doesn't deal well
"We're at war," said Gaylord Pinckney, a Housing and Urban
Development officer. "We just don't know with who."
Sen. John McCain said we should declare war, "but I don't know who
we'd declare war against."
"We suffer from an act of war without any enemy nation with which
to do battle," the New York Times editorialized.
Understandably angry, Sen. Orrin Hatch said "We're going after the
But when we don't know who the bastards are, it's hard to go after
President Bush vows to "hunt down and punish those responsible."
The tricky part will be to know who's
responsible. The danger is that in our desire for retribution, we may
hunt down and punish somebody, anybody, responsible or not.
Lawrence Eagleberger, Secretary of State for the first President
Bush, did nothing to alleviate that danger when he spoke on Tuesday
evening, just a few hours after the attacks.
The Truth, Mainly
He said we may have to kill some who aren't responsible in order to
kill some who are. He said we haven't been very successful dealing with
terrorism in the past "because we always want to know who did it."
Osama bin Laden is the most obvious suspect because of his history
as a sponsor of terrorism. But he's a Saudi exile living in
Afghanistan, and President Bush says we're not going to make fine
distinctions between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorists.
Does that mean that we bomb Afghanistan? That we bomb the same
people who were our alliesand recipients of our aidwhen they were
fighting the Soviets not so long ago?
Afghanistan's Taliban rulers last week begged us not to attack a
people who "have suffered so much." And suffer they have, not only from
four years of horrendous drought but from the religiously fanatic rule
of the Taliban.
And how certain are we that bin Laden is the guy we want? Remember
that after the Oklahoma City disaster, our knee-jerk response was to
arrest some Middle East Arabs whose only crime turned out to be that
they were Middle East Arabs.
Bin Laden has to be the prime suspect. But let's avoid knee-jerk
Let's take a few deep breaths, mourn our dead, and make sure we
know who the bastatds are before we go after them. And while we're in a
reflective mode, let's ponder how well a Missile Defense System would
have protected us from last week's obscene atrocity.
Now I'm going to phone my kids and grandkids yet againto see if
they've heard the latest news, to see how they're doing with it.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail