As the 73rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack arrives in three days, I am reminded of how Americans readily united when under attack. That Day of Infamy led us to World War II, causing foreign policy isolationists in Congress to support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In his speech the next day, Dec. 8, 1941, Roosevelt urged, “I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”
He also made some statements about what Americans stand for, lauding “confidence in our armed forces,” and “the unbounding determination of our people.” In asking Congress to issue a formal declaration of war, President Roosevelt himself declared, “The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
He made one final declaration, affirming “We will gain the inevitable triumph.”
While we did triumph by the close of World War II, Americans endured a surprise attack again nearly 70 years later on September 11, 2001 – a new Day of Infamy.
That same evening, President George W. Bush spoke about “the steel of American resolve” and defined the United States as “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”
He said, “This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace.” President Bush noted in conclusion, “We go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”
Soon after that, Oct. 23, 2001, proposed legislation known as H.R. 3162 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by James Sensenbrenner. That bill passed in the House Oct. 24, 2001, voted on and passed by the Senate the following day and signed into law by President Bush Oct. 26, 2001.
Thus, Public Law 107-56 was born, also known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001.
I was not around to experience the events of Pearl Harbor firsthand. There are fewer who still do as time rushes forward.
What I do remember about Sept. 11, 2001, is how I was teaching high school hundreds of miles from New York City, and it was American Civics class which was just beginning when a co-worker whispered something into my ear about terrorist attacks in New York. I didn’t realize that magnitude until a teacher next door played a live broadcast where announcers gravely described the enormity of that evolving situation.
There was a much more seasoned teacher next door who taught World History, and in the midst of this rising uncertainty and disorder, she spoke confidently to students: “This is history,” she told them. “People will be talking about this moment for the rest of your life – this is what it was like when Pearl Harbor happened. This is what history is,” she said again. In my own frozen state, I didn’t fully grasp what she meant. Yet as time passes, I understand it more and more.
New generations come into the world and do not know what we know. They will have their own memories.
Why does it take an attack – an injustice – for Congress to pass voluminous law enforcement reform legislation in only three days?
Why can’t we act fast in peaceful times too?
Why must a sense of injustice come to unite people so readily? If there’s no common enemy, is there simply no reason to unite?
Why must we suffer hardship before we come together to repel it?
These scenarios are all reactive – addressing wrongs which already happened. What do we do to prevent injustices, to cultivate national unity and espouse a sense of belonging in neighborhood communities for its own sake and for the sake of preventing future wrongs?
Weeks before his own assassination, President John F. Kennedy spoke to students at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He said, “I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.”
As we remember Pearl Harbor, remember America as a union of memories, ideas and ideals. Remember our purpose.