Pearl Harbor comparisons may be off base

By Chris O’Connell Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 12, 2001

Early reports of casualties resulting from Tuesday’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought quick comparisons to the attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II.  

Historians and public policy experts, however, say the attacks differ in many ways. Most notably, they say, there is no immediate and apparent enemy to retaliate against.  

Early reports suggesting more than 10,000 dead as a result of the attacks also exceed the 2,390 people who died at Pearl Harbor. 

One thing that is apparent, however, is the momentum building for reprisals against those who perpetrated the acts. 

“If there have been 10,000 people killed, the response is going to be ‘let’s find the guys and clobber them,’” said Michael Nacht, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Public Policy and a former member of the National Security Council under the Clinton Administration. 

President Bush’s statement proved Nacht correct. “(We’ll) hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts,” Bush said. 

Diane Clemens, UC Berkeley professor of history, compared Pearl Harbor to Tuesday’s attack. Pearl Harbor “was the attack of an organized government under the regular rules of war,” she said. 

However, the attacks Tuesday morning were by an “unseen, unknown, undeclared enemy on American soil against American citizens,” Clemens said. It was “much more heinous than traditional warfare.”  

This, she said, makes swift action similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against the Japanese the day after Pearl Harbor almost impossible. 

“Immediately after Pearl Harbor, a state of war was in existence, much like now. Then, the day after, Congress simply declared war. A de facto state of war was brought into existence, but it’s not locatable.” 

On the other hand, speaking to CNN, Senator Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, underscored what he saw as the similarities between Tuesday’s events and the attack on the U.S. Naval base the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, calling them a “second Pearl Harbor.” 

Nacht thought that such comparisons with Pearl Harbor are mistaken. 

“It’s not a very good analogy,” he said. “This is different. We are not at war with any sovereign government. It may take forever,” to find the party responsible for the actions. 

“This is a highly diversified and fractional threat, and it’s here.” 

Because the group or groups which perpetrated the hijackings of the four planes are probably loosely organized, Nacht said any future attempts to prosecute them in an international tribunal will be very difficult. 

“You’d be very hard pressed to find the evidence you need to say ‘We’ve got it, let’s go get them.’” 

Barbara Metcalf, professor of history at UC Davis, said that the instinct to blame and vilify must be avoided. “We should be cautious about pointing fingers, not the least because we don’t know who the enemy was.” 

Metcalf, who teaches Muslim studies said that she most feared reprisals against certain communities similar to Japanese Americans interred during World War II. 

“The worst thing that could happen is that everybody assumes this is an Islamic group.”