The 61st anniversary of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, which took the United States directly into World War II, is an appropriate moment for Americans to look at where we stand as a nation. We need to reflect, first, on the gratitude that we still need to show to those men and women who fought to protect our homeland from the aggressive intentions of Germany, Japan, and Italy. They are becoming less numerous among us.
The anniversary of such an event also leads us to try to say what is the same and what is different about Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001. The first launched the hot war against the Axis powers. The other launched a more amorphous war against terrorism.
The enemy in World War II was three specific countries. One problem with the war on terrorism is that terrorism is a method, a means, a tactic, not an entity that can be directly confronted, engaged, and defeated.
In a sense, even without instant media coverage, the Sept. 11 attack was dramatically powerful in its impact on the United States. Although not yet a state, Hawaii was an integral part of the United States of America in 1941, but many Americans still found it a little hard to focus on. Virtually everyone in this country today, however, has a sense of New York and Washington, if not necessarily Shanksville, Pa.
On the other hand, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its alliance with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy constituted a direct global, military challenge to America, to freedom, to democracy, to everything we stand for as a nation. Victory for the Axis powers, defeat for the Allies, would have created a world that America would have found very difficult to live in.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack had to be answered sharply - and has been - but there was never anything about what happened on that September day that suggested either that the future of our country was in doubt, or that the world we lived in was about to become uninhabitable for Americans.
It is important that America's contemporary leaders deal with the real challenges presented by Sept. 11 and the current situation in Iraq in a realistic and measured fashion. They should resist the temptation to try to define themselves as wartime leaders by dragging the country into a full-scale conflict unless it is absolutely necessary.