Difference in attacks is enormity, experts say

September 12, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

After the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed Dec. 7 "a day that will live in infamy." Yesterday, a historian at Penn State University spoke for colleagues across the nation when he said, in grim understatement, "I think we have another one."

There are, indeed, similarities between the Japanese raid 60 years ago and the mass-level mayhem that hit the United States yesterday. Both attacks seemed to come out of the blue. Both, according to historians, exposed widespread breakdowns in American intelligence. Both suggested effective disinformation on the part of the enemy, not to mention sophisticated planning, long-term calculation and a high level of military expertise.

"Those were veteran pilots [yesterday] - had to be," said Stanley Weintraub, a professor emeritus at Penn State who has written widely on World War II. "They had to know how to fly jets. That suggests training. Training suggests state sponsorship."

But even veteran historians found themselves groping for words to express the enormity of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

"This is unprecedented," said a shaken John Lampe, chair and history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "At Pearl Harbor, you had a single target. It used to be that even terrorist acts, such as the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, were directed at a single target. This sort of concerted terrorism, attacking multiple targets at once, is a first.

"And how we choose to respond will be unprecedented. "

The way history remembers these catastrophes may be anchored mostly in numbers. Some 2,400 died at Pearl Harbor. The question on everyone's mind, says Ed O'Donnell, a professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., is the death tally in yesterday's attacks.

"A hundred-and fifty-thousand people go through the World Trade Center every day," said the specialist in New York history. "Two subway stations are nearby. The World Financial Center is right across the street. Widen it out into the surrounding blocks and you're talking many, many hundreds of thousands of people" - vastly more than those who died at Pearl Harbor, and too many for scholars like O'Donnell to comprehend just yet.

"Can you think of a day on which upward of even 10,000 or 20,000 Americans were killed?" he asked. It's "hard to imagine an event of this magnitude falling off the historical charts for many, many decades."

In a way, O'Donnell says, this multiple assault is "the opening shot" of what experts have predicted of warfare in the 21st century.

"Small nations and small groups are empowered with deadly arms," he says. "The level of military superiority that we enjoy as a nation doesn't necessarily guarantee anything anymore." Networks of terrorists rather than nations can orchestrate massive attacks and "the enemy is intangible," said O'Donnell.

"It wasn't hard for Roosevelt to know who the attackers were [at Pearl Harbor]. Nobody was confused about that. The fact that [today's events] may or may not have been aggrandized by a foreign nation - Iraq, say, or Libya - makes it extremely difficult" to know how to react.

Further, not just the body count but also the symbolism of the targets were of obvious importance to the assailants. Yesterday's calamity targeted specific symbols of American power: the military in the form of the Pentagon and capitalism in the World Trade Center.

Yesterday's tragedy will likely dwarf Pearl Harbor in time, the experts agreed, if only in its scale. But there was one more chilling similarity. The United States' geographical isolation provides a sense of security we often take for granted.

"This makes us say those words we hate to say," O'Donnell says. "No one is safe."

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