History on the side of national resolve as calamities arise
Anniversaries of events have been important to most of us throughout our lives. It began with the anniversaries of our own births. In school, we memorized dates and places of historic events.
Some dates have to be committed to memory, like the date of our nation’s Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Others, however, can’t be forgotten, because we remember them happening. Those include the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963; and the attacks by terrorists flying hijacked jetliners on September 11, 2001.
That last horror, of course, happened 19 years ago today.
Formal remembrances of September 11 have become less numerous, but they are no less important. Almost 3,000 lost their lives.
Newspapers have been described as “the first draft of history” by some and “the rough draft of history” by others. Newspaper archives hold detailed information about what people did thanks to the stories, and what people liked to buy thanks to advertisements. They are time capsules indeed.
Pundits quoted in stories found in “first drafts of history” published during that time suggested that September 11 would become that current generation’s Pearl Harbor, meaning it’s a date that will “live in infamy.” We’ll remember where we were and what we were doing as long as we’re alive.
I can’t dispute that. Who among us can say that we’ve forgotten the moment when the stark reality of that morning’s news hit home? In retrospect though, I am reluctant to look further for parallels to such events. While they are unique, there are comparisons we can draw.
The aftermath to both December 7 and September 11 certainly included wartime responses, but the enemy was different in 2001. Unknown combatants linked mainly by ideology blurred international boundaries. An established government wasn’t the adversary. War was waged in different ways.
However, unlike in the early 1940s, the burden of the war on terrorism is not borne equally. The fight against terrorism features no military draft. There is no national mobilization to support the military. There is no rationing of consumer goods.
After September 11, public safety became paramount. We’ve almost forgotten, if we’re old enough to remember, how Americans willingly turned our personal lives upside down. The security guidelines implemented at airports were only part of the changes those terrorist attacks prompted. Long-standing rules about unreasonable search and seizure were set aside in favor of keeping people safe.
Many of those precautions were already in effect in other countries, but Americans considered themselves less vulnerable. The September 11 attacks proved otherwise, so we pivoted to guard the public’s safety with security measures limiting personal freedom. We relinquish a measure of privacy whenever we send an email, post on social media, or watch a TSA agent sift through carry-on baggage.
It’s now apparent that we’re living through another watershed era in our history. This month, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine forecast that more than 410,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19 by January 2021. This comes from an organization that was criticized earlier this year for its optimistic projections.
Almost 420,000 Americans died fighting World War II. An estimated 675,000 Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic, nearly six times the 117,000 killed in World War I. If we choose to make comparisons solely on deaths, the outlook is sobering.
Generations don’t have the option of choosing their calamities. Each one has to play the cards it’s dealt. Nevertheless, Americans have historically answered the call, and each generation has proven itself.
In 1918, Americans were battling not only a pandemic, but also the first world war. After Pearl Harbor, Americans joined the worldwide fight against fascism. After September 11, the nation sacrificed convenience to combat terrorism.
This time though, we’re not asked to join the military or navigate changes at the airport. This time, we’re only asked to cover our faces and avoid large crowds.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at email@example.com.