Understanding the Present Through the Past

2 05 2011

May 2, 2011 may not be a date that many Americans will remember as historic but the event that took place yesterday will live in the psyches of millions for the rest of their lives.  On May 2, 2011, a group of US Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.  He has been on our radar since the late 1990s because his involvement in the bombings of U.S. embassies and the U.S.S. Cole.  To paraphrase what Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth, “Vengeance (and justice) is a dish best served cold.”

Being a student of history I thought about what parallel from the past might best be used to understand the significance of this event.  I believe the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane on April 18, 1943 would be the most similar.  Although, unlike the killing of OBL, the American people were not made aware of Yamamoto’s demise until much later in the war.  Our intelligence service cracked the Japanese code and learned of Yamamoto’s flight plan and schedule.  Had that information been made public at the time, the Japanese military would have known their code was compromised. Our military continued to eavesdrop on the Japanese undetected for a long time.

I think where the real similarities come into play is that December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 are the only two times in modern history that the United States has been attacked on its own soil.  Both attacks were surprise attacks and both events rallied Americans of all stripes to come together with a common purpose to defeat a common enemy. Yamamoto was the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor and OBL was the driving force behind the attacks on 9/11.

As is the case with most Americans, I remember clearly where I was on September 11, 2001.  I was proctoring an ISTEP test for a group of 9th graders.  Towards the end of the first session of testing on that morning, the Asst. Principal knocked on the classroom door and told me to keep the students in the room at the end of that testing session and only allow one student at a time to go to the restroom and then with an adult chaperone.  Obviously, I knew that some sort of security issue had come up but the Asst. Principal did not elaborate.

As the events of the morning of 9/11 were unfolding, the concern for our school was to make sure that nothing made the state-mandated testing invalid because of the distraction.  As it turned out, that was a wise decision.  Several schools across the state had to throw out their test results and start all over.

Those 9th graders in 2001 are now adults, many with children of their own.  Several of them are in the military or have spouses in the military.  For them, the War on Terrorism has been present for their entire adult lives.

Later that afternoon, in the American Studies class, we decided to scrap the approved curriculum and take advantage of the learning opportunity.  The learning curve for the teachers was as steep as the one facing the students.  Learning the correct pronunciation of words like Taliban, Al Qaeda and jihad as well as getting a rudimentary understanding of Islam was a challenge.  Also the challenge of helping 11th graders to understand that the world would never be the same while at the same time encouraging them to pay attention to what was going on seemed overwhelming.  We worked on trying to answer their questions; part of which were clearly based in honest curiosity while many of the questions were simply efforts to assure themselves that they were safe sitting in a Southern Indiana classroom.

If I was not in my current situation in Princeton I would make a point to return to that American Studies classroom and listen to the discussion today.  Over the last ten years it has been easy to lose sight of what is going on with the true War on Terrorism because for most Americans, myself included, outside a a bit of inconvenience at the airport, little has changed in our personal lives since 9/11.

Living through  the anti-Vietnam War era and watching the news this morning, I admit that it was good to see people come together as Americans, not partisans.  We bitch and moan at each other over domestic issues but it is times like this that many of us feel our unity of purpose most.  Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech also comes to mind today.  In a small way, the killing of OBL by our military seems to help, to a greater or lesser degree, our ability to have “freedom from fear.”

WWII went on for another eighteen months after the killing of Yamamoto and the War on Terrorism will continue long after the death of OBL.  Still, this is a milestone and it sends a message that should not be misunderstood by the world.  Even with the wide ideological gap between President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, there is solidarity in the resolve of our people, our military and our political leaders that there is no place where those who attack America can hide.

Just my thoughts.

-gw-

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