“The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.” –Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, in his speech before Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
It’s raining out right now; a steady, cold drizzle from a sky as grey as gunmetal – appropriate weather for this day of days.
It’s hard to believe the terrorist attacks upon our nation on September 11, 2001, are now eight years past – and that such a day of sorrow and suffering has become a political football in many respects. It’s also strange to see how many try to sweep the events of that terrible day under the proverbial rug. Footage of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers is now rarely seen.
Indeed, today marks the culmination of the marketing campaign for the movie “Whiteout,” a schlock murder mystery set in the Antarctic. One would think the denizens of Hollywood, at the very least, would withhold the release of such cinematic fluff on days like this, out of respect for such a grievous moment in our nation’s history – like that other day when destruction rained down from the heavens on our soil, shattering the quiet of the Hawaiian Islands.
I often think about Dec. 7, 1941, on this day; the only other time in modern history when the U.S. nation itself was attacked. I remember how my grandmother talked about it; how that event irrevocably changed her world as a child and as an adult.
To me, however, it seemed so very remote; because, of course, I hadn’t been there when it happened. I hadn’t seen the huge changes in U.S. society as the nation geared up for a world war on two fronts – in Europe and in the Pacific. I hadn’t seen neighbors leave for the armed forces in droves … and watch silently as not all of them came back.
That all changed on Sept. 11 and the days that followed; perhaps even more so, as the horror was channeled live and in living color through the television and the computer screen right into my home. The events of Dec. 7 played out on radio, then later on news reel footage in the big movie houses, though that did not lessen the anguish one iota.
There are other more painful similarities between Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 as well; the most prominent being that, in both instances, our government knew something was coming, but lacked the final few pieces to put the picture together. The U.S. already suspected Japan might be up to something; all of our aircraft carriers had put to sea and planes at Pearl Harbor airstrips parked wingtip to wingtip for better protection against sabotage. But key red flags were missed and Japan’s naval forces gave us a tremendous pounding, not only at Pearl but across the Pacific; invading the Philippines, Wake Island, and other spots.
Sept. 11 proved no different; more heartbreakingly so because various U.S. agencies – from the FBI to the CIA – had foiled the so-called "Millennium plot” to crash jetliners into buildings across the world just a year or so prior to Sept. 11. Indeed, many law enforcement agents were hot on the trail several Sept. 11 plotters – even public citizens knew something was amiss, with several flight school instructors reporting that they had students who paid cash to learn to fly big jets … but had no interest in landing them. In the end, such efforts were in vain.
Of course, the end results from these two days now past are very different. By Dec. 8, the U.S. had officially declared war on Japan … and Nazi Germany declared war on us. Soon, millions of Americans armed to the teeth and backed by booming factories fanned out across the globe in ships, tanks, bombers and fighter aircraft and helped bring down those two evil empires in four years – at great cost in lives for our nation’s citizens and the entire world.
The legacy of Sept. 11, however, is murkier; no doubt in part because the enemies that hatched the Sept. 11 plot are murky. They hide in caves yet have access to great sums of money stashed in the financial underworld; their beliefs are so radical and strange all but a bare handful flock to their banner. They have no armies, no government, no organized structure to speak of – and that lack of form makes them hard to find and to stop.
“It is hard to overstate the differences between the 20th and the 21st centuries … in retrospect, life was simpler then. It was certainly more organized. It was certainly more symmetric. Threats were ‘conventional,’” noted National Security Adviser James L. Jones in a speech last February at the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy held in Munich, Germany.
“But to move forward, we must understand the terms national security and international security are no longer limited to the ministries of defense and foreign ministries; in fact, it encompasses the economic aspects of our societies,” he added. “It encompasses energy. It encompasses new threats, asymmetric threats involving proliferation, involving the illegal shipment of arms and narco-terrorism, and the like. Borders are no longer recognized and the simultaneity of the threats that face us are occurring at a more rapid pace.”
Jones – a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, rising from a platoon leader in Vietnam to achieve the rank of four-star General and Commandant of the USMC – stressed that the challenges that we face are broader and more diverse than we ever imagined, even after the terrible events of Sept. 11.
“And our capacity to meet these challenges in my view does not yet match the urgency of what is required,” he stated. “To be blunt, the institutions and approaches that we forged together through the 20th century are still adjusting to meet the realities of the 21st century. And the world has definitely changed, but we have not changed with it. But it is not too late, and this is the good news.”
Jones (at left) said we face more nimble adversaries today as well as more fast-moving crises – from conflict and terrorism to new diseases and environmental disasters. To keep pace, we will have to move faster in developing policy and priorities than did our predecessors.
“The world is a smaller place. Communications is more rapid. And therefore our reactions must be swifter,” he said. “There is no fixed model that can capture the world in all of its complexity. What’s right today will have to be different four years from now or eight years from now. [But] I have no doubt that we are at another crossroads in history. I know that we can meet the challenges of this moment in history if we have the courage and the commitment to change with the times.”
Well said, General – and I for one have no doubt we as Americans can surmount those challenges.