Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Forgetting Pearl Harbor

I wonder if it will be my grandchildren's generation that only vaguely remembers 9/11/2001.

At the speed of society today, it might be my own kids who, in their status updates (which won't be status updates, but something I can't even imagine) mention the tragedy of the day without ever feeling its impact or spending more than a passing moment in consideration.

As I walked back to our offices on Sept. 11, having just watched the second tower collapse in disbelief on the only television available in the student commons (where hundreds of us huddled together), I said to my friend Lynne, this is our Pearl Harbor.

I was feeling for the first time the sheer terror of living in a world where 747s are now used a bombs, filled with civilian passengers who must have realized at the very end, only obliquely and in blind panic, that these hijackers weren't going to land the plane. I thought about those people a lot for weeks after that. I put myself in their place, had I been strapped into the plane with my kids between me as we hurtled lower and lower and grazed the tops of Manhattan buildings. What would we have been able to do but hold one another's hands, look into each other's eyes, and pray for it to be quick?

I think of the people on the 90th floors of the first tower who never had a chance to even consider their lives before they were gone. And all the humanity trapped above them who would.

And you see, in those moments I only began to understand the feeling that galvanized the nation after Pearl Harbor. It was only then that I tried to piece together how those men, so many of them teenagers, trapped on burning sinking ships in the harbor must've looked at one another, their shipmates and friends, in those last seconds.

And then it faded.

Instead of spending the next years watching almost every young man I know ship out for World War II, with only half of them coming home, I knew of a few men who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and none who died.

The reality is 9/11 was little like Pearl Harbor.

3000 people lost their lives in the attack on 9/11, which is more than the 2400 killed on this day 69 years ago.

But the most liberal estimates of those killed in the War on Terror exceed one million people.

Let that sink in for a minute. A million lives.

The death toll from WWII, also using the most liberal estimates?


This is the day we are supposed to remember the catalyst, the terrible day when the world changed.

But that generation who buried half their town's sons has mostly gone on to join them in the quiet cemeteries of faded headstones.

And we forget.

And even when we try to remember, there just isn't a way to become that society who listened raptly to the one news outlet on the radio, who waited weeks for letters, who saw pictures of the destruction at Pearl Harbor only statically in grainy black and white pictures in the newspaper, and who waited agonizing months before receiving definitive word that their loved ones were indeed killed in the attack, or in all the other attacks half a world away.

Perhaps it was the slowness of information, of life even, that allowed them the ability to remember, to soak up the tragedy and embrace its sadness in a way that we cannot.

Today is the day that will live in infamy.

As will 9/11.

But not much infamy anymore.

And less and less as the years pass.

And we catch just a transient sense of what we are losing --

because there's the rub of remembrance and forgetting, of life and death.

So there will be a few parades today with the last men who knew those who died at Pearl Harbor by name, by face, by their own memories.

The rest of us will try, in our limited way, to appreciate what it means, even if that really means appreciating what has been lost to all of us and forever will be.


Post a Comment