“December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy,” or so Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed. Since that awful day 81 years ago, America has had other days that shocked its citizens and reminded its government that there are plenty of haters in the world eager to disrupt our peace and undermine our economy. Those of us living and working in New York City on September 11, 2001, will remember that the first plane’s colliding with one of the World Trade Center towers was thought to be a horrific accident. Reality set it when the second plane struck. It was then that we knew that America had a well- organized, highly motivated enemy that was willing to go to war with the strongest military in the world.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists under the direction of the Saudi Arabian multimillionaire Osama bin Laden on 9/11. Nearly 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy and Air Force on December 7, 1941. The two attacks had several common features. Amongst those is that in both instances the attackers were trained and the targets chosen by former allies of the United States.
Allied forces in World War I included the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Australia, Canada, and Japan. Opposing these nations were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, jointly referred to as the Central Powers. At the conclusion of that war to end all wars, Japan’s interests were dismissed as irrelevant by the other nations involved in the conflict and negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. As European powers focused on punishing the Central Powers for the death and destruction wrought by Germany and its allies during that war, the seeds of resentment were planted in the ruling circles of Imperial Japan. Japan’s contribution was dismissed as inconsequential and its reward for its participation was negligible.
Osama bin Laden was a principal instrument in America’s proxy war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. That he received direct funds and supplies from the U.S. in his fight against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan is disputed, but that American resources and trainers were involved in supporting his forces in their successful effort to oust the Soviets is undeniable. Nonetheless, he opposed the Saudi governments accommodations to American requests, including the establishment of an American air base near the holy city of Medina.
The Pearl Harbor attack and the World Trade Center attack were also both alluded to in intelligence reports prior to their execution. That Pearl Harbor might be specifically targeted after the U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Japan to frustrate its military activities in southeast Asia was suggested in memos sent to the military commanders in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the alerts were so vaguely worded that the commanders at Pearl Harbor thought they were being warned of possible sabotage of American assets and ordered munitions and other combat materials to be secured with access strictly limited. This and the failure to recognize incoming planes as Japanese fighters, rather than unscheduled American forces, contributed to the delayed response by the skeleton crews aboard the ships and airplanes targeted by the Japanese attackers.
Similarly, that Osama bin Laden planned an attack in the U.S. with hijacked planes was noted in the daily briefing to the President on August 6, 2001. The World Trade Center had already been the site of a bombing in 1993 by terrorists. Despite the main towers of the World Trade Center having already been targeted, U.S. officials did not recognize that the terrorism alert from August, 2001, could be referencing these buildings and no additional precautions to frustrate airline hijackings in or about New York City were adopted. In fact, the New York City emergency and disaster management center was installed in the World Trade Center on the 23rd floor of the 7 World Trade Center building after the 1993 bombing. With the 2001 attack, that facility was too severely damaged to be used.
As surely as there will always be enemies, foreign and domestic, intent on undermining the opportunities and freedoms that have made the U.S. a world leader, there will be more days of infamy. The motives for murder are usually prosaic: a desire to weaken our economy or to advance a limited ideology or to just get a valued resource. In World War II, the German leadership wanted to build an empire that would last a thousand years, and the Japanese military-industrial complex wanted to secure its access to oil in southeast Asia. Osama bin Laden justified his attacks against the United States on religious grounds, but behind this claim of religious fervor was a much more pedestrian desire to be noticed, applauded, and feared.
There is always a reason offered for atrocities, but in the final analysis, it is little more than the impulse of some to dominate or destroy others. What is most remarkable over the course of the past thousands of years is how few craven people in positions of power it takes to inflict misery on millions of innocent people. Genghis Khan directed his armies to kill millions of Asians to establish himself, his family, and his allies as the undisputed rulers of much of Asia. The Roman and Egyptian empires were forged with the help of advanced technology and ruthlessness, leading to the establishment of ruling classes that tolerated no opposition. Even now we see the whim of an ex-KGB agent in Russia wreaking havoc on the lives and lands of the Ukrainian people in his effort to recreate an empire, the Soviet Union, that itself was a product of indiscriminate murder and exploitation.
We Americans still get to choose the people to whom we give power. The system is unarguably flawed and unevenly applied, but it does provide some defense against the ascent of crackpots and madmen (and madwomen). Ideally the people we have at the helm will deal with future days of infamy decisively and judiciously. Hopefully none of the men and women we send to do the people’s business in Washington, D.C., and state capitols will abuse the power vested in them to perpetrate their own days of infamy.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.