I went through all of December 7 this year without thinking about the date, so it wasn’t until the morning of December 8, when I watched a video somebody had posted on Facebook, that I realized I had missed Pearl Harbor Day. The video showed the glee club of the Naval Academy singing the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (which, as it happens, was my mother’s favorite hymn), on December 7, 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack. At one point the video cut away from the singers to black-and-white images of the devastation caused on December 7, 1941. It was deeply moving. And it was also thought-provoking. At the time of the attack on Hawaii, the Japanese had already conquered Korea, much of China, and Indonesia; within days after Pearl Harbor, they had taken Hong Kong, Thailand, Kiribati, and Wake Island, and within a few more months they had swallowed up what are now the countries of Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Timor-Leste, and Papua New Guinea, plus Guam.
Yet less than four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States, having just taken part in the utter destruction of Nazi Germany, brought Japan, too, to its knees. Not only did we beat their butts; we also crushed to bits the twisted set of beliefs, including a conviction that the Emperor himself was a god, that had been at the heart of the Japanese mentality for centuries. Having been told they were invincible, they were stunned to the core by the impact of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombings, and the subsequent occupation under General Douglas MacArthur, totally rewired their minds. In short, we humbled them and, in doing so, kicked off a sea change that would have been inconceivable before the war – the transformation of what had, for centuries, been a warlike empire populated by would-be kamikazes into a democratic Western-style nation and staunch U.S. ally whose people are preoccupied with the peaceful manufacture of electronics.
On September 11, 2001, the U.S. was the victim of another surprise attack, one even more horrific than the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The weapons were our own airplanes, and fifteen of the nineteen perpetrators were Saudis, several of whom had attended flight school in Florida. Last Friday, an atrocity at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, revealed to the American public that Saudis, even now – eighteen years later – are being trained to fly by the U.S. military. The guilty party, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, an aviation student and a second lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force, opened fire in a classroom building, murdering three and wounding twelve before being killed by two local sheriff’s deputies (raising the question, incidentally, of why county cops made it to the scene before armed personnel).
Alshamrani was, by the way, not a “lone wolf.” Six other Saudis, fellow students of his in Pensacola, were “detained for questioning” after the shootings; one of them, reportedly, had filmed the shooting spree, while two others watched from a car, which suggests, of course, that they may have known about, and approved of, Alshamrani’s plans beforehand. And yet one of the claims made in the hours after the atrocity was that all Saudi subjects selected for training at U.S. military installations are intensely vetted by both Saudi and U.S. officials.
That was troubling news. Even more troubling were President Trump’s tweets. After offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families, Trump added that “King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences” and that Salman “said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.” Now, I’m a huge fan of President Trump, but nineteen years after 9/11, I find it appalling that, during his tenure, our military is training Saudis to be pilots. It wouldn’t have surprised me under Bush or Obama. But it surprises me under Trump. It’s also depressing to see Trump doing emergency PR work for the Saudi government, which is widely believed to have played a role in the 9/11 attacks. As of Sunday morning, Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, was still refusing to call the shootings an act of terrorism. This isn’t why we elected Donald J. Trump.
In 1941, we went all-out in our response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. We were right to do so. And it worked. We turned a jaguar into a kitten. Nuclear fission helped. I’m not saying we should have used nukes in response to 9/11. But a nuke wasn’t necessary. Surely we could have reduced the Kaaba, the Great Mosque, and other key structures in Mecca to rubble on September 12, 2001, by using conventional missiles. Yes, every government and media organ on earth, of course, would have reflexively condemned us for doing so. But perhaps the condemnations would not have been all that vicious or gone on all that long. If you’re old enough to remember 9/11, you’ll recall that the whole non-Muslim world was in shock, and briefly, anyway, everyone on the planet, other than the most fanatical America-haters, was on our side; the ridiculously widespread, utterly counterfactual image of Muslims as victims that now dominates Western culture had yet to be firmly established.
Think of it. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. showered those cities with leaflets telling the inhabitants what was coming and warning them to clear out pronto. We could have done the same with Mecca. After nearly 3000 people had been massacred on our soil without warning or provocation in the name of Allah, bombing a few deserted structures in the Arabian desert would hardly have seemed a disproportionate response. In any case, America ended up being reviled anyway because of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost massive sums of money and countless lives on both sides without ever coming close to resolving the actual problem at the root of Islamic terrorism; surely the criticism of the U.S. for bombing Mecca to kingdom come in a single day’s sortie, would not have gone on nearly as long as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lasted, along with the daily worldwide condemnations thereof. And it would have been lots cheaper.
Most important, it would have been even more stunning, in its own way, than the attacks of 9/11 themselves, making it crystal clear to every Islamic terrorist, potential terrorist, or terrorist cheerleader, as well as to the rulers in Tehran, Cairo, Riyadh, Baghdad, Kabul, Ankara, and other Islamic capitals, that America meant business. Such an attack would have paralyzed every devout Muslim on earth – it would, with any luck, have wiped the very concepts of jihad and sharia out of their heads and knocked the Korans out of their hands, setting off a metamorphosis that, in the long term, would probably have done them a great deal of good, just as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in retrospect, the best favor anybody ever did Japan. But it’s too late for such thoughts now. Eighteen years too late. Instead of a reformed Muslim world, what we have today is a Western world, including an America, that, since 9/11, has undergone a shift in attitudes that makes it difficult for most of us even to talk frankly about the perfidy that is Islam and to call an obvious act of terrorism by its true name.