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Pearl Harbor was, of course, tragic, but this attack is far worse

By STEVEN A. SIMON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


Comparisons of Tuesday's terrorist acts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor run rampant. To a point, of course, these comparisons are apt. When struggling to process and make sense of extraordinary events, it is natural to try to view them with some frame of reference.

In this nation's history, Pearl Harbor is the only event that even comes close. In both cases, American interests were attacked from the air without warning and with great destruction and loss of life. In both cases, intelligence sources failed to learn about the attacks in advance or provide a warning. In both cases, the stunning attack galvanized Americans, uniting them against the perpetrators.

Beyond these basic similarities, however, the comparison loses its viability. To my way of thinking, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in suburban Washington, D.C., are 10 times -- 100 times -- worse and more ominous than Pearl Harbor.

In 1941, the countries of the world were at war. While the United States was still on the sidelines, World War II was in full swing. Japan, certain we would at some stage enter the fray, pre-emptively struck military targets and the soon-to-be-foe's military assets. This event took place hundreds of miles from the U.S. mainland in Hawaii, which was not yet a state. We learned about it via radio and President Franklin Roosevelt's immortal "Day of Infamy" speech. The roughly 2,300 Americans killed in the sneak attack were affiliated with the military.

While none of these facts make the tragedy any less horrific, they put it into the context of a battlefield operation -- a very successful, even textbook one at that. After the attack, Americans, united perhaps as never before, were eager for war against a known enemy. We felt anger and sought revenge, and these intense feelings had a target.

In 2001, the countries of the world were at peace. In two of our major cities, as elsewhere around the nation, private citizens were earning a paycheck, living their lives as best they could. Then terrorists targeted, in the World Trade Center at least, a totally civilian target with no fighting or even defensive capability. In mocking irony, they used our own aircraft, with markings of "American" and "United," against us. We watched it in real time and in vivid color on our televisions. The death toll, composed almost exclusively of non-combatant men, women and children, not to mention firefighters, police officers and rescue personnel, will exceed Pearl Harbor's body count many times over. And, perhaps worst of all, our fury has no focus, no direction. As citizens and as a country, we want to act, we need to act, but we can't see the enemy.

These were not some unidentified buildings in some faraway, perhaps politically unstable, country. Many of us have visited the now damaged or destroyed landmarks. Many of us know someone who works or worked in the areas. Our family, for example, traveled to New York City in July to visit relatives who live in lower Manhattan and work in the financial district. In fact, two months and two days before the attack, my wife, our two children and I stood at the top of the World Trade Center, 1,377 feet above the city, enjoying the incredible views. We felt very secure. On Tuesday, watching the building crumble on television penetrated me to the core.

I have links to one of the day's other tragedies as well, having spent five years assigned to the Pentagon, regularly walking the corridors that now lie charred and askew. I fear the release of the casualty list, as I will almost certainly recognize names. As a former military man, I feel powerless, impotent, as I watch the events unfold.

Like many Americans, I do what little I can. I pray for the victims, the survivors, their families, the cities, the country. On Tuesday, I finally got around to mounting and hanging the Stars and Stripes on the house. It will remain there, properly illuminated, around the clock for the time being. Despite being a wimp, I will, for the first time in my life, donate blood. I know I'll pass out, but it's okay.

I just wish I could do more.

- Steve A. Simon lives in Cheval and writes frequently for North of Tampa.

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