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Ron Kaye: Learning the lesson of the 9/11 tragedy

It was just before 2:30 in the afternoon of Sunday Dec. 7, 1941 when a New York radio station interrupted the broadcast of the New York Giants football game with a shocking news bulletin: The Japanese had staged a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Naval base in Hawaii.

Broadcast of the game quickly resumed after the brief report. It was the same across America as NBC, CBS and other radio networks broke into Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade, a performance of the “Inspector General,” an intellectual discussion of Canada’s role in the war in Europe — and then returned to normal programming.

There were occasional bulletin interruptions throughout the afternoon and evening, but it was not until the next day that the nation learned just how devastating the attack was.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he began his famous 6 ½-minute speech to Congress that unified the nation.


He detailed Japan’s coordinated “surprise” attacks throughout the Pacific region and acknowledged there was “severe damage to American naval and military forces.

“I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.”

He concluded, saying, “always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”

Within the hour, isolationist sentiment evaporated and Congress voted to declare war on Japan, and four days later to declare war on Germany.


The losses caused by Japan’s 400-warplane assault were terrible: more than a dozen ships sunk or badly damaged, 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed; 2,402 service personnel killed, 1,282 wounded.

Those who lived through that date of infamy have never forgotten what happened. It was seared into their memories by the words of the president, and it unified the nation for a long and painful four years of war.

Yet, by the 10th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was helping to build Japan into the dominant economic power in Asia, and Germany into the dominant economic power in Europe.

Now, as we grieve on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and killed 2,753 people, we need to reflect on all that has happened, how much the world has changed and how much has been achieved.

None of us can ever forget the horror of that day or forget the date, Sept. 11, 2001. We saw what happened with our own eyes with continuous live television coverage, from the first bulletin that an airplane had crashed into the first tower to the death and destruction that followed.

We have been at war continuously these last 10 years against a pernicious idea as much as against a shadowy enemy. The men and women in our military have paid dearly and the costs to our nation have been great.

But we have prevented the terrorists from again doing great harm to us and we are seeing uprisings across the Arab world that have overthrown long-time tyrants and planted the seeds of freedom.

There is an appointed time for everything, a time for every event under heaven — this is a time to move beyond our grief, our anger, our fear and to heal ourselves as a people.


I think that’s the lesson that this great tragedy has to teach us.

We are a nation divided against itself, engaged in an uncivil war between know-it-alls and know-nothings who do not speak to what is in our hearts or in our interests. We have lost faith in so many of our institutions, and lost confidence in ourselves.

The martyrs of 9/11 will have died in vain if we are unable to find our common ground as Americans and work together for the common good.

It may seem old-fashioned to many, but we need to rediscover the core of the American spirit that unites us with respect for our differences and frees us to fulfill our dreams.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.