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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2002 / 6 Tishrei, 5763

Bob Greene

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The day that infamy
pulled a vanishing act | Yes, it is a day that will live in infamy.

That was the first connection Americans made on that Tuesday morning a year ago, and it was the logical one. The only day that could be compared with Sept. 11, 2001, was Dec. 7, 1941. Two days now, to live side-by-side in infamy.

But the comparisons stopped with the attacks themselves last September. Everything that has followed has borne little similarity to what happened in the year following Dec. 7, 1941.

Think of it this way:

What if, after the warplanes had descended on Pearl Harbor out of the December sky, after the American ships had been hit and the American military men had been sent to their deaths . . .

What if, in the days and weeks and months after Pearl Harbor, our attacking enemy had done:


What if President Roosevelt had not even been absolutely certain who the enemy was? What if the enemy had flown the flag of no nation, and had issued no public statements about its goals and purposes?

But mostly this:

What if, after Pearl Harbor, the enemy had not waged a war? What if it had simply withdrawn?

What if the enemy had disappeared?

It would have been unthinkable -- and after that first day of infamy, the one in 1941, it was unthinkable. The battles were furious and devastating after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and for a number of months virtually all of the news for the United States was bad news. Japan had struck the first blow, and it was not letting up. Add to that the fight for which our fathers and grandfathers were mobilizing against a separate enemy in Europe, and those first months after Pearl Harbor were among the darkest in American history.

So, of course, last Sept. 11, it made perfect sense to summon forth the day-of-infamy comparison. Sneak attack; Americans dead before they knew what hit them; a brazenness by an enemy whose cunning we had failed to fully anticipate. . . .

A year ago, it felt like Pearl Harbor all over again. And the nation rose to respond.

But -- perhaps the one thing we could not have predicted -- our new enemy did not present itself to respond to. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which felt like the opening shots in an ongoing assault on the American people, instead -- incredibly -- for a year have stood as self-contained actions, carried out in a single day. There has been no follow-up.

It's astonishing -- or at least it should be. We're almost a little grateful that there has been nothing more, which, while an understandable emotion, is a dangerous one. Because by not following through, our enemies have taunted us. The message -- and it's not one we would choose to hear -- is that our enemies will run this war on their timetable, not ours.

We don't know if they have studied U.S. military history. If they have, perhaps they concluded that, when the United States is rocked back on its heels, it will eventually prevail. Perhaps, looking at World War II, our new enemies concluded that there was no way they could defeat us if they continued their aggression after Sept. 11.

We don't know that they studied our history -- but we do know that, in terms of warfare, they have been all but soundless since that September Tuesday. It was a day of infamy, all right -- but a day of infamy in isolation, a day of infamy encased in crystal. The year-later newspaper, magazine and broadcast specials this week are all focusing on that one day, and America's yearlong response to it. Think about the year-later summing up after the first day of infamy -- think of what the U.S. had been through by Dec. 7, 1942. We were at war. The day of infamy had been only the beginning.

Now? We know, somewhere deep inside us, that the Sept. 11 day of infamy was only the beginning, too -- but that's about all we know. We have no true idea of what the people who leveled the World Trade Center and smashed the Pentagon will do next -- more significantly, we don't know when they will do it. Maybe we could have won this war by now, if there had been one. This is new to us. They started a war -- and went silent.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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