TCS Daily

Why It Was Different

By Brian E. Finch - September 11, 2002 12:00 AM

As we mark the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, people everywhere will try to place the attacks into an historical context. The most natural analogy, and the one that has pervaded our culture, is that 9/11 is the "second Pearl Harbor." The similarities are all there: a sudden attack on a lazy day; a nation caught completely by surprise; allegations that our nation's defense and intelligence systems were asleep at the switch.

Those issues will be debated for years to come. On this solemn day of remembrance, however, it's important to examine one of the more fundamental distinctions between the two days. In doing so we will realize that, as dastardly as the Pearl Harbor attack was, 9/11 was a far more evil attack, one that deserves all the furor that was spawned by December 7 but is curiously absent today.

"Get Up, Dammit! They're Here!"

When the Kido Butai, the Japanese task force that launched the Pearl Harbor strike, left Japan in late November 1941, great pains were taken to ensure that its trip across the Pacific Ocean was completed in secrecy. The task force sailed under orders of strict radio silence - for instance the keys from most of the radio sets were physically removed and sealed in order to prevent any radio transmissions. The fleet also sailed through an area of the Pacific not normally traversed by ships in order to prevent its accidental discovery. Meanwhile, a great campaign of disinformation was undertaken - false radio signals, mysterious movements by other naval vessels, all in an attempt to confuse and mislead allied intelligence. And in the end, it worked - the Kido Butai approached the Hawaiian Islands undetected, with its presence only being announced by the sight of its planes over Pearl Harbor.

Yet, when the Japanese struck at the American fleet, everyone knew who was doing the shooting. As so carefully documented in by Robert LaForte and Ronald Marcello in Remembering Pearl Harbor, once the American soldiers and sailors saw the red circle of the "rising sun" insignia on the aircraft, there was no question that the planes were Japanese. Time and again, LaForte and Marcello relate the same story - the "rising sun" insignia was all the Americans needed to see in order to know that they were under attack. One sailor recounts how when he saw a torpedo plane go flying by with the rising sun painted on its wings, he screamed out "Holy Christ! The Japs!" Another soldier recalled the he and his housemate were awakened by the sound of anti-aircraft fire, and after looking out the window to see what was going on the housemate hurriedly asked what the Japanese insignia was. When the soldier replied it was the rising sun, the housemate screamed "Get up, dammit! They're here!"

Those stories were repeated thousands of times on December 7, and they all emphasize the same point - the servicemen at Pearl Harbor knew when they saw the rising sun insignia that they were under attack, and that the Japanese were doing the shooting. Knowing that, they knew what to do next. Alarms sounded on every ship and station. Some were calm, others were not - one sailor actually screamed over the intercom "Man the antiaircraft batteries! This is a real air raid and no s**t! People scrambled to their battle stations, manned guns, passed ammunition, and shot back. Others helped fight fires, closed water tight doors or tried to move planes and ships out of harm's way. Uniformly, the servicemen at Pearl Harbor knew what to do to try and help minimize the damage. Many died that day, but many more were saved because of brave men and women who did their jobs.

"A Horrible Airline Accident"

In contrast, on September 11 anyone seeing American Airlines Flight 11, United Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 757 or United Flight 93 would have thought they were just some of the thousands of commercial airline flights that happened to be cruising through the skies that day, not suicidal weapons of mass destruction.

The people working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center certainly had no idea that they were the targets of a deliberate attack. Plowing into the mass of steel and concrete at hundreds of miles an hour, no one could have known what the real intentions were of the pilots aboard American Airlines Flight 11. As Time reporter Nancy Gibbs wrote the next day, when the first plane struck, "people thought it was a sonic boom, or a construction accident, or freak lightning on a lovely day; at worst, a horrible airline accident... a pilot trying to ditch in the river and missing." Some people thought of terrorism, but many did not. Most in the North Tower tried desperately to get out. An evacuation order was given in the South Tower, but was rescinded prematurely as United Flight 175 would soon be screaming into that Tower as well. Only when then second plane hit did the possibility of some form of attack really enter into people's minds.

Even then, the dimensions of the attack were unknown. What was going on, the world wondered? Was it one, two or twenty planes that had been commandeered for missions of death? Were they commercial airliners, cargo planes, or small aircraft jammed full of explosives? Every plane in the sky went from being brilliant streaks pleasantly trailing wispy clouds to potential suicide missiles. No one, particularly law enforcement or the military, could readily tell which planes were threats and which planes were safe. Planes that were not immediately responding to air traffic control now had to be considered threats. No location, no city was safe. Close to 10:00AM, a giant explosion ripped through the Pentagon - was that now a car bomb? Initially it was thought so, and soon reports came racing in about bombs at the National Mall, the State Department, and worse of several unaccounted for planes streaking towards D.C. Yet, no one could do anything - helplessness prevailed.

What A Difference A Day Makes

Therein lies the real difference between the two days - the way our enemies revealed themselves and carried out their attacks. At Pearl Harbor, men could race to antiaircraft guns and blaze away, even if they did not really know how to use them. If they could not find an antiaircraft gun, they could grab a rifle or a pistol, or even use their shotguns from the skeet range (as two officers did) to shoot back. Pilots could race to their planes in a desperate hope to get in the air and fight back. Even if a man could do none of those things, he could don his helmet and rush to the aid of others as he was trained. Most important, he could look to the sky, see planes emblazoned with the "rising sun," and know that it was the Japanese attacking. There was no question about who was doing the shooting, or whom to shoot back at.

On 9/11, the situation was entirely different. The U.S. had no idea it was under attack The terrorists used hijacked airliners, something no one would really know about until it was too late. Even if we knew one or two airliners had been hijacked, how were we to know whether more were out there? There was no rising sun on Mohammed Atta's stolen plane - the terrorists had blended into the proverbial crowd, forcing us to make some potentially horrible decisions. Moreover, the people in New York and Washington could not protect themselves. They had no helmets to grab, no machine guns to break out of lockers in order to defend themselves. Instead they were like me, looking out of my office on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. and seeing that I was surrounded by potential targets with no place to go and no way to defend myself.

Even if Mohammed Atta and crew had been caught before they boarded their planes, the impact of their potential actions would not have anywhere near as great an impression as watching the Twin Towers fall. Americans had been attacked on a regular basis over the past eight years, and we had reacted with something close to a collective yawn. No great call to war was heard when the U.S.S. Cole was bombed, or the African embassies, or even when plotters were caught trying to plant bombs at LAX. No, Atta and crew could have stayed silent, and the senior plotters who had planned the attack half a world away could simply have written him and his crew off and moved on to their next attempt. Compare that to the Kido Butai - it was plainly a Japanese strike fleet sailing to launch an attack, and had it been stumbled upon by the U.S. Navy before it launched its planes (as Japan had expected) undoubtedly war would have broken out between the U.S. and Japan.

To be sure, Pearl Harbor was a dastardly event. Yet, while the Japanese had planned to make clear before the attack that hostilities were imminent (but did not do so due to procedural errors), bin Laden never considered such an act. Nor did he even do us the minor honor of openly attacking us like the Japanese. When 9/11 was all over, we had to figure out who had sucker punched us, who set about the task of deliberately slaughtering American civilians. The cowardly decision to hide who was responsible for the attack represents perhaps the largest reason why equating 9/11 and Pearl Harbor is such a mistake - it dignifies al-Qaeda and our other foes in an undeserved fashion. It also demonstrates why we must be so tenacious in our pursuit of our foes, whether they reside in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere: our enemies could strike anywhere, and they have proven that they are willing to target those who are not prepared fight back. We must, therefore, take the fight to them before they take it back to us.



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