September 14, 2001

A Very Different "Day of Infamy"

By: Walter Truett Anderson

OAKLAND, CA — The stunning events of September 11 brought for me a vivid flashback to another sudden, unexpected attack on the United States: the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. I was not surprised to see many in the media use the phrase "day of infamy," which recalled President Franklin Roosevelt's stirring message to the public in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Although nearly 60 years have passed, in many ways the feelings are the same — a feeling that time has stopped, that some basic sense of security has been obliterated.

Yet, for all the similarities in the emotional effect of the two events, there is a world of difference. In 1941, we knew immediately whom to blame, and we knew what we had to do.

There was never any doubt about who was responsible for the attack. The message was not, "Pearl Harbor has been bombed," but "Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor." Although it was a new experience for Americans, we could immediately define it as a military act by one nation against another.

There was no doubt about what to do: go to war. The attack happened on a Sunday, and the next morning men by the tens of thousands were lining up to enlist in the armed forces.

This time, things were far murkier on both counts. I went to a hastily convened meeting of fellow journalists and we argued about who was responsible. Some thought it had to be Islamic terrorists and assumed that the attacks were linked to the conflict in Palestine. Others were equally certain that it had to be more anti-government warfare from within, a sequel to the bombing in Oklahoma City. Some thought a national government might be surreptitiously involved — Afghanistan being the favorite candidate — but nobody believed we were dealing with an act of war between nations of the sort we understood from past centuries.

So what to do?

President Bush was talking about a swift and punitive response, and man-on-the-street interviews indicated that some citizens were ready to join the armed forces and go to battle, 20th-century style. But even these would-be warriors seem-ed to know we were dealing with something different.

And it is a different world, in many ways.

First and most obviously, it is a world in which nation-states no longer have what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a "monopoly of violence." There are now many players in global politics — transnational corporations, intergovernmental organizations, proliferating activist groups, terrorist organizations — and the experts even have a new name for them: non-state actors. Some of these actors are capable not only of influencing public policy, but of planning and carrying out acts of war.

We are now living in a world in which boundaries aren't quite what they used to be.

The Pearl Harbor attack was launched from the other side of the Pacific. The New York and Washington bombings may have been planned elsewhere, but were executed within the United States. Borders were immediately shut down in response to the attack, yet the truth is that we will never be able to fully close our borders. The increasing mobility of people and information and goods is a fact of 21st-century life, and not one that our government or any other has the power to repeal.

It is, finally, a world in which motivations are not so easily understood or explained. In 1941, nobody wondered why the Japanese chose to attack Pearl Harbor. We explained everything in terms of national interest and military might. Some political theorists still do that, and call it "realism." But there is nothing in those conventional modes of thought that explains why men should be willing to sacrifice their own lives to destroy buildings full of civilians.

The attack left us not only shaken, but bewildered, talking of acts of hatred but with no clear understanding of where that hatred springs from, or why. We can't similarly retaliate with hatred — of Islam, say, or of the Middle East — because those entities are not simply "over there" (in the words of the famous World War I song), but also over here. We are, among other things, a nation of mosques and Arab Americans. And the memory of Oklahoma City reminds us that terrorist bombers are not always foreigners.

So we will have to heal our wounds, we will have to punish the offenders, and we will have to do everything possible to prevent further disasters of this magnitude. But we will have to do something else: make our way into a new world, a global civilization with new rules and new players, and one in which America — even in this moment of stirring national emotions — is inextricably involved.

Walter Truett Anderson is the author of "The Future of the Self" (Tarcher Putnam, 1997) and "Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be" (W.H. Freeman). Truett is a political scientist who writes widely on technology and global governance.

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