The Truth, Mainly - 09/17/2001

Let's take a deep breath before retribution
by Leon Satterfield

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 now."

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, 2001—both 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 bear."

•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 with ambiguity.

"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 bastards."

But when we don't know who the bastards are, it's hard to go after them.

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.

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 allies—and recipients of our aid—when 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 responses.

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 again—to 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 address is:

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