9/11 and Pearl Harbor - A Reflection

It was a route that I took many times while living in Chicago. To get to Midway Airport from the Northwest side of the city, I would hop on the Brown Line train, transfer to the Orange Line when I got to downtown, and ride it to the end where it would pull up to the entrance to the airport. While on the Orange Line, I would see many warehouses pass by as we got closer to the edge of town. One building in particular caught my eye, as it featured a mural with an American flag, along with the dates December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001. There was also a caption accompanying these dates which said something like, "We will never forget!"

As the years go on, there are fewer and fewer of us who personally remember the events of December 7, 1941 - the day Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked by Japan, and prompted the U.S. to enter into World War II. There are, however, many of us who vividly remember the events of September 11, 2001 - the day al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial air craft; crashing two of them into the Twin Towers in New York, and one into the Pentagon. The fourth air craft crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania as passengers fought the terrorists who hijacked the plane, preventing it from crashing into other structures at the cost of their own lives.

Both events left our nation reeling as the news came in on our radios, in the newspapers, and - in the case of 9/11 - on our television sets. For the people of Pearl Harbor and New York City, the news came to them directly through their senses - in what they saw and heard right in front of them. While I do remember the events of September 11, 2001 as an elementary school student, I can't even begin to imagine the horror of witnessing it all firsthand. Both events changed the course of our nation's history forever. The confidence we once had in safety on our own soil was shaken. The attacks each resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Americans. Such great violence no longer felt so far away. We felt the dread of realizing each event meant the beginning of a long, costly time of warfare. They also left us with that bewildered question of, "Why? Why did this happen to us?"

^ 9/11 Memorial, Ground Zero, New York City, NY

Shortly after arriving at Midway Airport, I would check my luggage, and then have my boarding pass and ID ready as I approached the line for security. After passing through security, I would head towards my gate, which sometimes took me by the "Battle of Midway" display, commemorating the World War II battle between the U.S. and Japan for which the airport had been named. Again, both events leaving their mark - the security measures taken because of 9/11, and an airport named in memory of a conflict prompted by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

To be honest, most of the time, I would pass through security and pass by the Midway display without much thought or feeling about them. Airline security had been part of the protocol for over half my lifetime. It felt normal by now. If I had any feeling about it, most of the time it might be frustration with how long it was taking to get through, or the fact I had to hop around taking my shoes off, and then hop around again to put them back on after going through the scanners. As for the Midway display, I had a flight of my own to catch, and other things on my mind. Stopping long enough to get a really good look at it and reflect on it felt like a distraction from my own present concerns.

This, of course, is not the right way to think, nor the right way to "remember."

What does it mean to "remember" 9/11, and to "never forget" it? Perhaps thinking about how we "remember" Pearl Harbor can help us answer this question. As stated previously, there are fewer and fewer of us who literally "remember" the events of December 7, 1941. Eventually, the same will be said for those of us who "remember" 9/11. What then of the phrase, "We will never forget?" It would be a rather nonsensical statement if it simply meant, "Those who witnessed it and lived through it will never forget." Of course they won't. It need not be stated, especially so emphatically. What then does it mean to "remember" for those of us living as post-Pearl Harbor and, eventually, as post-9/11 generations?

^ Article from the St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press featuring the attack on Pearl Harbor, from the James F. Mason WWII Collection at the Plainsman Museum

I think "remembering" in this way means taking the time to pause and reflect on both the best and the worst in humanity that was displayed during these tragic events, and striving to learn from it as we look to the future. In this remembering, we can make an effort to prevent the evils of history from repeating themselves, while also having an example to look to for strength when evils do arise in our own time. On December 7, 1941, we saw some of the worst in humanity as America suffered a catastrophic attack on both our military and citizenry. On 9/11, we saw some of the worst in humanity as over 2,000 innocent American civilians had their lives ended by cruel al-Qaeda operatives, who were filled with so much hate that they too engaged in suicide dive-bombing in order to take out the lives of others. What forces drove people to commit such violence, and are we able to guard our own hearts against them so that we may not become what had once hurt us so badly? We would do well to take warning from such events.

Yet, even with such darkness, what about the good? While we saw some of the worst in humanity on December 7, 1941 and on September 11, 2001, did we also not see some of the best in humanity at the same time? One of the most comforting quotes I've ever heard was from Mr. Rogers who once said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Some of the most poignant images that we have from 9/11 are those of the first responders who immediately leapt to the aid of the citizens of New York, despite the shock, fear and horror they themselves must've been feeling. Some of those who were lost that day were indeed first responders who gave their lives so that others could escape the burning and collapsing towers. We also saw ordinary citizens from around the city and the country come together in the face of tragedy, and to not let the terrorists win by destroying our spirit as a nation. Similarly, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, our countrymen of the past came together to mourn as a nation, and to offer whatever support they could for those most affected.

There was a reason why they called it "the home front" during World War II. Not all battles take place overseas, and not all battles look the same. Are we honoring those who fought on the "home fronts" of our history in how we are carrying on their legacy today? In remembering 9/11, are we also able to have a strong "home front" as we face the challenges of our time? What examples of fortitude may we take inspiration from as we move towards the future? What warnings can we take to heart about both the corruption of the human spirit, as well as the encouragement of its potential valor?

Whenever I would board a plane headed out of Midway, I had so few cares to worry about. Perhaps the thought would occasionally pass through my mind that something could happen while I was on the flight, but it was always just that - a passing thought. Similar to how I would just pass through security, or just pass by the "Battle of Midway" display. It was there, then it was gone, and I moved on with my day. Perhaps it's okay to not always have a deep, visceral response whenever we remember Pearl Harbor or 9/11, or when we see the signs of them. But perhaps we do need to make more of a conscious effort to truly reflect on them, to learn from them, and allow them to shape our lives for the better. Obviously, those who witnessed such things firsthand will feel the impact to a greater degree, but those of us who haven't can still take the time to pause for empathy for those of our past, and to make sure to "remember" so that we may "never forget."

My luggage is packed, my seat belt is fastened, the plane has taken to the skies, and now I am heading home.

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