The difference between today and 1941 is our sense of vulnerability. On Pearl Harbor day, a Sunday, my family had come home from the Methodist Church and were sitting around the dining room eating real Kentucky fried chicken when a neighbor phoned to tell us to turn on the radio. I was home from my first newspaper job on the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, 22 miles away, and the unreality of the monster event contrasted with the warm sun on the grainery barn out the window. "The Japs," as we instantly began to think of our enemy, were as exotic and far away as anything the mind could imagine.
But this time the airliners flying into the World Trade Center--the second one that made such a dramatic picture--was right here at home. It hit meright in my gut: The attack was only three blocks from the Trinity office where I helped launch a magazine, where I'd often been at work at 7 a.m. We'd flown the familiar airline routescross country into JFK and LaGuardia, taken shuttles from New York to Washington.
My mother, of course, had us on our knees that Pearl Harbor Day, and we all knew that God was on our side against any infidel way off in the Pacific. In our secure Kentucky farmhouse, none of us had ever seen the Pacific. Today, we live in a global village, and the Moslems are no more distant than the fundamentalist Baptists used to be. We are vulnerable to one another in a way that none of us ever knew before. The instant response is defensive, military for us old soldiers, but the deeper response is a profound sense of something more scary.
One of our neighbors, Martha Dennis, a Harvard Ph.D. in math and an entrepreneur who launched two or three companies, says she roused her kids--a pair of Yale twins--early to say "the world is changing for the worse, and you need to get up and watch it." Why? "The remarkable freedoms we've enjoyed, in spite of everything, just can't be maintained any longer. Imagine the way things will be controlled now."
Martha's fear of course is that in our vulnerability, we will turn the country into a paranoid state. If anyone wanted to destroy the American thrust in the world, he would find a way to shut down our openness, our warmth, our casual gift of trust, our capacity to become the stewpot of all the world's religions that is just now helping us see what pluralism is all about.
He would find a way to keep American women and men, especially women, from walking comfortably anywhere in the world. He would find a way to reverse our rising habit (now 83%) of seeing other faiths as moral as our own.
The airliners flying into the WTC were totally different from Pearl Harbor. This disaster tells us that there's no place to hide. In our new vulnerability, there are no buffer states, no ultimate protections for anyone in a high-tech world where an airliner can become a flying bomb in the hands of a devout few. We face tyranny at our own hands or the hard-to-imagine job of becoming soul mates with people who now hate us.