BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As I watched in disbelief the churning clouds of gray smoke that curled skywards from the World Trade Towers, I thought of my parents, and how they had watched a very similar picture 60 years ago.
They watched the newsreels in disbelief as gray clouds of billowing smoke curled upwards from the remains of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said at the time would live in infamy.
Those clouds would change life forever for millions of Americans. My mother and father had recently built a new home and looked forward to a busy and peaceful life raising a family. But soon, my father had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was aboard an aircraft carrier heading to the Pacific. He would return to us–but so many other fathers would not.
Threats to America and our way of life were a constant part of my childhood. The top half of our car headlights were painted black, so as not to be seen from the air by enemy pilots. On the beach at Ocean City, Md., the boardwalk lights, which I called “the dead-lighted feet” because of their shape, shone only inward. They cast no light out to sea, where enemy U-boats might be prowling.
And even later, when the war had ended, a new threat emerged.
From time to time, the nuns would tell the students in my parochial school to kneel on the floor beside our desks and put our heads in our arms to shield our eyes.
Since St. Michael’s School was in Maryland, not that far from the White House, we doubted that “duck and cover” would really protect us in case of nuclear holocaust. The A-bomb was a very real companion of my childhood. I remember saying my prayers and asking for the usual stuff, like God bless my mom and dad and let me pass my Latin test and, oh yes, please don’t let us get blown up by the A-bomb.
Era of Unease Had Been Forgotten
I had forgotten the unease that lived just below the surface of American life for so many years: How we all thought it wasn’t really going to happen, but maybe, just maybe. . .
Sept. 11, 2001, brought it all back. There was a special twinge for me when I heard that Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had been one of the planes hijacked and crashed.
My daughter lives in LA, and I live here. I can see Logan Airport from the window of my house, and I have flown Flight 11 more times than I can count. I can still remember the faces of the helpful and cheerful Boston-based flight crew as we chatted about our families.
Yet what happened Tuesday was dramatically different than what happened 60 years ago. The airplanes that struck from out of the sky on Dec. 7, l941, were military planes, and they struck military targets.
As reprehensible as that sneak attack might have been, it was made by airplanes wearing their military colors aiming at the warships of another nation.
In this recent assault, our own commercial airliners were used as a hostile air force against us. Innocent women, children, babies, and teen-agers were used as projectiles to give vent to irrational hatred. It was a coward’s way of waging war.
Parents; Generation Defended Democracy and So Will We
Perhaps my consolation is that the prospect that faced my parents 60 years ago was of a world torn apart by war, in which millions would die. Democracy stood poised on the knife-edge of fascism and the planet could have faced a future of unspeakable horror.
That is no longer true. My parents’ generation saw to it that democracy survived. And so will contemporary Americans.
I wanted to say to the cowards who planned the attack on America as I watched the smoke curl upwards from the ruined World Trade Towers and the surrounding area:
“You haven’t got a chance. Do you think for an instant that you can destroy American Democracy? Hitler couldn’t do it. The warlords of imperial Japan couldn’t do it. Joe Stalin couldn’t do it. You guys are pikers compared to them.”
From outside, we Americans may seem an unruly lot. We bicker. We fight. One group says nasty things about another group. But when you attack us, all that vanishes. In the 60 years that followed Peal Harbor, we have gone to great lengths to conquer our own demons of gender bias, racism and the other sources of systemic inequities.We still have far, far to go, but we are much better prepared to come together and all of us to be simply Americans–no matter what our gender, skin color, our accent, our religion. We are the last best hope of man and woman-kind because we embrace our values require to embrace difference–just as cowardly terrorists reject it.
We pray to God in different tongues and in different halls. We are American and we will endure.
We will rebuild our buildings and tighten up security at our airports. We may feel a bit more nervous when we get on an elevator or buy an airplane ticket. But the world has changed since the day my parents watched those grainy films of Pearl Harbor. For the better.
As a society, we are freer, more tolerant, more accepting of our differences than ever before. And there is no more Hitler, no more Stalin. Children don’t have to pray that atomic bombs will not annihilate them.
Not since the might of Rome spanned the known world has one nation held so much power. And though we have our faults, on the whole, we use that power wisely, compassionately.
Will you destroy us with your fanaticism, your intolerance, your hatred? Not a chance. Your victories are momentary, your power illusory. At this moment the slogan that adorns our money really has a meaning: E pluribus Unum. From many, One.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.