Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2002 / 3 Tishrei, 5763
One by one, oil drops still seep from the submerged hull of the USS Arizona. And one by one, some men who survived the bomb that hit the battleship's forward magazine still return, the urns containing their ashes lowered through the water into the hole of a gun turret, because as one of them said, "Ever since December 7, 1941, I've been living on borrowed time. My place is with my shipmates."
Here, about as far as you can get in America from the scenes of last year's attacks, you see this difference: In 1941 a mighty empire -- an enemy with a serious if reckless geopolitical strategy -- struck at real sinews of U.S. power. In 2001 a delusional, premodern enemy lashed out at American symbols -- iconic buildings -- and instantly magnified American power by dispelling an American mood. Call it end-of-history complacency.
The attack that came here 61 years ago from across the broadest ocean erased forever the belief that geography -- wide oceans, placid neighbors -- confers permanent security on America. The attacks last year erased the comparably soothing belief that the logic of military technology (deterrence) and the march of modernity (the retreat of primitivism) had written an end to history, meaning the immunity of great powers to attacks.
Sixty-one Decembers ago, as last year, America suffered from intelligence failures. But in both instances, for the officials charged with protecting the nation's security, the attacks came not as bolts from the blue but as bolts from what they knew to be ominously darkening skies.
Both times American officials knew enough to know that the international atmosphere was charged with hidden menace. Which is why the first shots fired on Dec. 7, 1941, were fired by America's wary military: At 6:45 a.m., the destroyer USS Ward attacked one of the two-man midget submarines -- its wreckage was found two weeks ago -- lurking at the mouth of the harbor, poised to participate in the attack that was still 70 minutes over the horizon.
The attacks of Dec. 7, 1941, like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a curious mixture of virtuosity and primitivism. Al Qaeda skillfully used 19 suicidal fanatics wielding box cutters and commercial airliners to attack a continent. It was deadly, and absurd.
Japan's military achievement -- moving 32 warships 4,000 miles undetected; designing shallow-running torpedoes; brilliantly coordinating the bomb and torpedo attacks -- was military sophistication of the highest order. Yet the pilots skimming 30 feet over the water used carpenters' levels in their cockpits to make sure their planes were properly positioned to insert their torpedoes into the water.
The Americans who died here -- on the Arizona, 23 sets of brothers, and a father and his son -- were mostly military men. Those whom the terrorists targeted last September were mostly civilians.
For all Americans, being a focus of furies -- which a muscular nation, extending almost 5,000 miles from the cavity in southern Manhattan to the Arizona's hull, will be -- is a dangerous destiny. It is a destiny that, in a sense, was just dawning 104 years ago when the USS Baltimore sailed from here.
On March 25, 1898, that cruiser left to join Commodore Dewey's fleet in Hong Kong. It entered Manila Bay with the fleet on May 1 and participated in the destruction of the Spanish fleet. The Spanish-American War established the United States as a global power, its power projected then entirely by its Navy. In 1941 an important portion of the Navy was based here because -- westward the course of empire takes its way -- the United States had annexed these islands in that eventful year of 1898.
On a December Sunday 43 years later, the Baltimore, which had been decommissioned in 1922, was a ghost ship moored at the end of battleship row, where it escaped damage. But in a sense its career was still not over. In 1942 it was turned into scrap. No doubt some of it was sent back to war in bits and pieces.
Half a million gallons of fuel oil remain in the Arizona's hull. With leakage of a quart a day, no one now living will be alive when the surface sheen from the last drop drifts away. And no one now living will live to see a day when Americans forget the lesson now associated with Sept. 11 as well as Dec. 7: A powerful nation embodying a powerful idea and spanning six time zones is permanently exposed to dangers from all the other 18 zones.
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