Once when I was a child, a visitor to my great-aunt’s house bent down, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You don’t remember the world before Pearl Harbor do you?”
As I stared at the woman, startled by the question, I saw a mixture of pity and sadness reflected in her face. I have no idea what her world was like before December 7, 1941. But even as a child, I understood there had been a time before Pearl Harbor and a time after.
There was something rhetorical in that question as the event itself took place more than two decades before I was born, and happened even before my parents’ births. To me Pearl Harbor was a historical fact as immutable as the Civil War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the fall of Rome. They were all pieces of a past upon which my reality stood.
I grew up with grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles. Many times I heard ‘”old men” speaking about World War II. Sometimes they would talk about boring islands in the Pacific; other times, they both fascinated and frightened me with stories of firebombing Tokyo or shooting children dressed as German soldiers.
One man told me about trying to rescue men from a sinking ship amid the chaos of the battle of Pearl Harbor. He and his friends desperately tried to pierce the hull of an overturned ship as it slowly sank beneath the water. He said he could hear voices of the men inside even as the ship was lost beneath the oil-slicked waves. His story has always been my mental image of Pearl Harbor.
After a while I realized there was a piece of their story I had not accounted for. There was a ‘time before,’ a ‘time after,’ and the ‘horror of.’ All of the stories of World War II veterans I had the privilege to hear were from the ‘horror of’ – the events sparked by Pearl Harbor and everything that followed until the end of the war.
But the fact remains that I am a product of a different age. For all the stories I have heard and all the newsreels and documentaries I have watched, I can never truly know the horror of World War II. And the ‘time before,’ in great part, eludes me.
On September 11, 2001, we lost nearly 3,000 people and four passenger airplanes in an unprecedented attack. There was a time before, a time after, and the horror of.
Today, America has an entire generation of young people who have no concept of the time before. To them, the 9/11 attacks are a historical fact not unlike the first moon walk, the assassination of President Kennedy or Elvis sightings. For those young people, the horror of that day is limited to the realm of documentaries and fill-in-the-blank history tests.
They are not the ones who lived through the horror. They are not the ones who carry the scars of those endless hours.
They are our children and they look to the future, not the past.
Recently some young people in San Antonio made a commercial in which they built and then demolished Twin Tower replicas made of mattresses for the purpose of promoting a 9/11 sale. Watching the video made me sad for a number of reasons, but the sadness is mine and mine alone.
However, I feel strongly that these young adults do not deserve to be threatened or coerced in any way because of their video. Instead, they deserve, as Americans, to be educated. But, they have a First Amendment right to create their commercial and thousands of good people died to secure that right. I believe we should all honor it.
As a youngster, I watched Abbott and Costello jostle their way through the Navy, and Bugs Bunny impersonate both Hitler and Stalin. Hogan’s Heroes bested the Germans every week, while McHale’s Navy outsmarted the Japanese, and The Producers envisioned springtime for Hitler.
Humor is part of healing and 15 years after the sorrow of 9/11, maybe we should allow the kids a little room to have some fun, even if we don’t think it is funny.
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