I sense that the infamy of this commemorative date isn’t quite what it used to be. Nothing heals old psychic wounds quite like plasma screens and hemorrhaging terrorist inflicted wounds delivered live on national television.
Still, many of us will pause and consider the 2,390 men who lost their lives on the day that Yamamoto awoke the sleeping giant. Time will determine whether 9-11, which claimed an even greater number of unsuspecting American lives, will be commemorated as a seminal event on the order of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lately, I have begun to believe that perhaps it will.
Pearl Harbor is rightfully considered the essential event that lead to the World dominance of the United States in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In our cultural consciousness, the attack stands as a closing bracket on the Great Depression and an opening bracket for a period of new greatness. And make no mistake, our internal self-image was one of not simply greatness in size and power, but also one of greatness in purpose and spirit.
It has been suggested to me that perhaps Americans do themselves a disservice by over-glorifying “The Greatest Generation”. And while there certainly is a point to taking a cold hard look at our past lest we repeat the lessons learned, such as those of Manzanar, I reject that we overdo this veneration of our ancestors because it is important to remember that there are causes greater than our individual selves. There is no doubt that the people of that time were just ordinary people, more or less like you or me, doing their best in extraordinary circumstances. The label of greatness was not conferred, but rather earned when these ordinary people answered the call to a higher purpose.
Like many, I suppose, I found my fellow American’s response to 9-11 initially encouraging. Just maybe, I let myself wax optimistically, this tragedy, like Pearl Harbor, will lead to a rebirth of American spirit and a rededication of individuals to those great ideals for which it is worth suffering and dying. The heart warming response of Americans in the initial aftermath was indeed a beautiful thing. Sadly, and far too quickly, my naiveté was eventually squashed by the venom I saw hurled toward Arab people.
Perhaps Manzanar was not after all a lesson learned, but rather a harbinger for our time.
Part of the pride in being American has always been, or at least for the last century, a sense of a national desire to behave well as a world citizen. While we often execute poorly, the intentions have been noble and generally defensible. And we knew what we stood for with clarity: freedom rooted in a proper appreciation of human rights. And when it comes to certain uncivilized things, well, America just doesn’t do things like that.
But with the revelations of Abu Ghraib, many of us have been forced to reconsider our internal image of America. Molly Ivins wrote recently about American torture and expressed the angst this Curmudgeon feels extremely well. The revelations regarding the treatment at Guantanamo Bay brought Molly to a new level of rage wherein she pleaded forcefully:
What are you going to do about this?
It’s your country, your money, your government. You own it; you run it; you are the board of directors. They are doing this in your name. The people we elect to public office do what you want them to do. Perhaps you should get in touch with them.
I would certainly encourage you to write your Congress Critters regarding this matter, though I am doubtful of the result. Doubtful because the elected elite do not seem to listen very much to any voice that doesn’t threaten their next re-election bid. And of course, we have recently been “in touch with them”—its called an election.
You see, the last election was well after the torture revelations. Well after we had all read that this administration considers human rights “quaint”. Months had passed since we found out that Rumsfeld was aware of what was going on and that regardless, our President was standing by his Secretary of Defense.
Yes, we are the board of directors and the board spoke pretty clearly to the Executive officers when we returned the President and almost the entire Congress to office. The ballots were not yet all counted when they reported back to the board of directors, “mandate accepted”.
Yup. I do think that terrorists have set us on a path as radically different from the one previously trod as was the new road onto which Yamamoto nudged us Sixty-three years ago.
It is a good thing for us to pause and remember the attack on Pearl Harbor. To remember a time when Causes were bigger than Ourselves. A time when they were the ones that flouted the Geneva Convention and held human rights in contempt. A time when we were the ones that coveted freedom not just for ourselves and our posterity, but also for all people no matter their nationality, race or creed.
Now hold that thought.
Keep holding: the next election is two years away.