Is there any American who doesn't approach September 11th with a feeling of sadness and the thought of, "What will I do? How will I spend the day?"
This September 11, my husband and I have been invited to a baby naming for the first granddaughter of dear friends. I can't think of anything I would rather do that day than be with people I love celebrating new life.
Last year a colleague who worked in lower Manhattan in September of 2001 sent me an e-mail saying, "Next year write something that reminds us that Americans have been through bad things before and that we can pull through."
I knew what he meant. I don't think I'll ever forget the feel of that crisp autumn morning was filled with bright sunshine, and then the terrible news and the all-consuming worry. Later, though we were in the suburbs 30 miles away, we could see the curl of smoke from the fires that continued to burn in lower Manhattan. Funerals for our neighbors followed, and for several weeks, we heard the nightly drone of planes patrolling the eastern shoreline.
On August 31, I had reason to recall my colleague's request to write something meaningful regarding this date. On short notice, my husband and I had an opportunity to go to Hawaii and were invited for a Navy tour of Pearl Harbor. The opportunity to visit the 1941 site of the "date which will live in infamy" so near the anniversary of the more recent attack on the United States seemed fortuitous.
Like September 11, 2001, December 7, 1941 was also a beautiful sunny day. It was Sunday and Hawaiians and Americans stationed at Pearl Harbor were not expecting anything but a pleasant weekend. There had been rumors of an eventual attack on American equipment in Hawaii but negotiations with Japan were ongoing, and in the early 1940s no one could fathom that Japan, located 4,000 miles from Hawaii, could possibly launch a major attack on Oahu.
Just as TSA security officials in 2001 could not comprehend the depth of evil in the men who presented themselves at several small airports to clear security on their way to meet up for flights in Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C., the same sort of thing occurred in Honolulu. At 7:30 a.m. in 1941, two planes were spotted on a newly installed radar system, but the men on duty assumed that the planes in question were American flights that were supposed to be arriving from California that day. No one thought to verify the identity of the incoming planes.
At 7:52 a.m. in Hawaii the first bombs hit Wheeler Airfield followed by additional bombs dropped on other facilities in the Pearl Harbor area. At 8:40 a.m. the Japanese began a second attack.
One young woman who was on the Pearl Harbor tour with us described what her grandmother-in-law, living near the Pearl Harbor base at the time, related about the experience: "She told me, her husband got up; he put on the uniform he had worn on Friday--something that was just not done but it was nearest at hand--and left for the base immediately. She didn't see him again for a year."
By the end of that Sunday in 1941, 2390 people had died, and like the World Trade Center attack, there was no way to retrieve the bodies. When one visits Pearl Harbor and sets foot on the Memorial, it is very clear that it is hallowed ground; the sailors' remains are contained in the wreckage of the ships that lie beneath.
In addition to the human toll, which also included thousands who were injured, the damage to military equipment was enormous. Though the primary target--the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers--was missed because the planes were out of port at the time, there was still great damage. Eight battleships were destroyed or disabled, 164 planes demolished, and another 159 damaged.
Ironically, the Japanese had not intended it to be an unannounced attack. The operation was timed to follow delivery of a note declaring war. Late delivery changed the course of history.
The United States was catapulted into responding to this horrific attack.
After 9-11, American citizens came together in support of each other and of the country, just as they did following Pearl Harbor.
In 2001, President George W. Bush capitalized on this and took us to war to defeat the enemy, and he also told us the way to get the country back on track was to go out and "shop." We now see we took on the wrong enemy, and though I understand that "shopping" helps provide jobs by boosting the economy, in retrospect, this idea to "self-indulge" our way out of trouble has proven to be terribly misguided.
We now have an economy that is still trying to right itself after many years of Wall Street greed (self-indulgence, banker-style), political nastiness that is nothing new but certainly feels tiring, and many of our citizens are taking their anger over the World Trade Center attacks out on those who practice the Muslim religion.
Greed? Political parties that can't seem to cooperate on anything, even for the "good of the country?" Religious intolerance? That's not why our Founding Fathers worked for months to put on paper the United States Constitution, creating a free government that has lasted longer than any other in the history of the world.
American citizens are a good and intelligent people. It is not too late to look at September 11, and remember the words of the late President John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."
Whether it's a single hour of volunteering locally or a longer-term commitment to something that is important to you, the future is in our very own hands. Doing something selfless that makes life a little better for one of your fellow citizens will help restore America to what it should be. This would be a very fitting way to honor the many people who died on September 11 or December 7 as well as the many who have fought in our wars, all in order to make this country great.
As I was writing this piece, a newsfeed from NeonTommy, an Annenberg digital news site at the University of Southern California that is edited by my daughter, popped into my In Box. In this day when religious intolerance seems to be increasing, I wish the Florida pastor and all others who share his anti-Muslim feelings could check out this piece about Muslims who seem to have heeded Kennedy's suggestion: http://www.neontommy.com/news/2010/09/los-angeles-muslim-community-serves-skid-row
I also hope you'll make plans to spend Saturday with people you love.