The 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is upon us just as Americans are looking for some perspective on the twin shocks of Sept. 11 - the terrorist strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and their heartrending consequences.
Many observers have drawn a parallel between the two incidents. America lost its sense of invulnerability when Japanese Zero fighters caught the US Pacific Fleet off guard on a quiet Sunday morning, sinking most of its proud battleships and killing some 2,500 US servicemen. Sixty years later, Sept. 11 caused many of us to lose that sense anew.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was by a visible enemy, and the US Congress responded with a declaration of war on Japan. Americans prosecuted the war with grim determination until Japan's total defeat four years later. The Sept. 11 attack, though causing about a thousand more fatalities than the Pearl Harbor attack, was carried out by an enemy much more difficult to target and pursue with precision - international terrorism. President Bush has used the language of a multifaceted war to describe what he is doing, and so far the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban has recorded some notable successes.
But the future remains murky. That is where the 60-year perspective afforded by Pearl Harbor may provide an insight into what America is all about.
Some years ago, I made my first visit to Pearl Harbor. As part of the Pacific Fleet's courtesy package for journalists, I was offered a tour of the naval base and a visit to the Arizona Memorial, which is built over water immediately above the final resting place of the USS Arizona. This was the battleship that had been sunk with almost all her crew aboard. The car sent to pick me up at my hotel was driven by an Asian woman in the uniform of a US Navy sailor. We got to talking and, recognizing her accent, I soon switched to Japanese.
It turned out that my driver had been born in Hiroshima, Japan, had married an American, moved to Chicago, and become a US citizen. The marriage had not worked out, and she had enlisted in the US Navy. After basic training, she was transferred to Hawaii, where she was assigned to be a driver at the Pearl Harbor naval base.
She told me that her mother, who had gone through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, had been reluctant to take the tour. When she did, she was so moved by the Arizona Memorial that her feelings about the Hiroshima bombing went through a catharsis.
I, too, found the Arizona Memorial memorable. Furthermore, the story I had just heard started me thinking about America itself. Certainly Pearl Harbor was, in President Roosevelt's words, a "date which will live in infamy." It galvanized Americans into making the prodigious efforts required to defeat Japan, including the controversial nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But once the war was over, the United States made a generous peace with her former enemy.
The sailor I had met was not merely a symbol of that peace. She was not a guide, nor had she been assigned to Pearl Harbor specifically to escort Japanese visitors. She could as easily have been African-American, or Arab-American, or any other of the hyphenated Americans that most of us are.
That may be hard for many Americans of Islamic background to accept in today's overheated atmosphere. But history shows that hysteria never governs this country for long. The essence of America is to be all-embracing, and we are certain to see proof of this long before another 60 years have gone by.
Takashi Oka is a former longtime correspondent for the Monitor.