Sept. 11 tragedies not this generation’s Pearl Harbor

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, December 4, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

EUGENE, Ore. — Sixty years ago this week, on December 7, 1941, Japan launched a devastating attack on the United States fleet and air bases in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor Day — the day FDR said "will live in infamy" — remains a landmark in history and in the minds of those of us with our personal memories of that transforming moment in our lives.

On Sept. 11, 2001, there were many who said, "This is another Pearl Harbor." More lives were lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than on that terrible day in Hawaii. The victims this time were mostly civilian, not military. And the assault hit two cities in the continental United States, not an island territory far distant from where most Americans live.

But nearly three months later, it is clear that 9-11 is not this generation’s Pearl Harbor Day.

At a luncheon here the other day with faculty and staff from the University of Oregon and townspeople, I asked if Eugene had been changed by the terrorist attacks.

The first response came from a university official. Thinking back to the protests that occurred on this and other campuses during the Vietnam War, he said, "They’re flying flags now, instead of burning them."

Many others at the table attested to that basic patriotic impulse, telling the same stories of blood banks and charity drives being oversubscribed, and newspaper circulation spurting that I have heard elsewhere.

But as the conversation went on, the tone changed. One faculty member said his friends and his students have been unable to recover from "a state of shock." Another said many students had been "traumatized," not only by the scale of the carnage on television but also by the near-simultaneous realization that the bottom has dropped out of the economy, damaging the job market they are preparing to enter.

A third told of a conversation with a bright young woman who had said, "My personal concerns seem so trivial, compared to what has happened. But I have no idea what I can do."

That last comment crystallized the difference. I was in seventh grade, not yet a teen-ager, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. On Monday, Dec. 8, all of us gathered in the auditorium of the Washington School, the junior high in Chicago Heights, Ill., to listen to Roosevelt’s address to a joint session of Congress. That very next weekend, we were mobilized for the first scrap drive, going door to door to collect discarded utensils and tools to feed into the blast furnaces of war plants beginning to operate three shifts a day.

Within a few weeks, my mother, who had never worked, took a job in the office of a chemical plant, replacing one of the many men who had volunteered for military service. That spring and summer, most of my friends and I joined crews working on local farms, filling in as best we could for those who had gone off to war or into the defense plants.

This time, there has been no such summons to service or even to fill in for and replace those who have put their lives on the lines. People are literally at a loss to know what is expected of them. President Bush has urged Americans to live their normal lives, to hit the stores for Christmas shopping and to spend their tax rebates — but also to be vigilant for any possible terrorist threats.

That is not the only mixed signal from Washington. At every stop in my three days in Oregon, I found people asking what would come next. Will the war on terrorism turn to Iraq and Saddam Hussein? And where else might American troops be needed? No answers are forthcoming from the capital.

An editor of the Eugene Register-Guard told me that his paper had sent out reporters a month after 9-11 to ask how lives had changed. "We found that, basically, life had not changed," he said. "People had compartmentalized the threat; they were more wary of flying, for example, but the rest of their lives were normal. They didn’t think Eugene would be a terrorist target."

"Was this before or after the anthrax threat?" I asked.

The reply: "No anthrax has turned up west of the Mississippi."

The clincher came when another university person observed, "You know, for our students, it’s not that unusual to see U.S. troops in a low-risk military operation in some distant country. What is unusual for them is to be caught in a recession. The war on terrorism is a lot more remote for them than the search for a job."

David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.

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