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Henningsen: Lessons From Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor was one of those events history sets its watch by - a moment so unnerving that everyone old enough to understand what’s happening knows that reality has just been permanently - and violently - rearranged. John Kennedy’s assassination was such an event; as was 9/11. But history always tells what happened; rarely how it felt. Philip Roth observed that history obscures an elemental fact of the past, “the terror of the unforeseen”. He’s right. Events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 evoked an almost overpowering sense of dread. But that dread forced us to face our fears and deal with new realities. Doing that united us in common purpose.

For many, the recent election was a Pearl Harbor-level surprise - minus the violence. But far from bringing us together, it’s divided us further, enraging half the country while delighting the rest. As we unite in resenting each other, we put an ironic and sinister spin on Roth’s idea: What terrifies us isn’t the unforeseen, but the familiar, which we seem to have misunderstood.

It’s been said that the worst of times brings out the best in people, and in our history that’s usually been true - but so far, not now. Perhaps that’s because, unlike outside provocations like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the election was a self-inflicted wound. Or perhaps we’re so internally divided we’re simply no longer capable of coming together to meet such a challenge.

But perhaps it’s because, despite widespread sentiment to the contrary, the election isn’t a Pearl Harbor-level crisis. Indeed, it’s just possible that it’s an opportunity and a challenge - however unwanted - to redefine ourselves in relation to one another.

And perhaps that’s worth considering.

From Valley Forge, to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we’ve set aside internal division to overcome major existential threats. Implicit in our responses to those challenges is the unspoken American motto: “Deal with it.” And in all of those crises, that’s what we’ve done. As we observe Pearl Harbor Day and honor the sacrifice of those who served, we might remember the major lesson of that “day of infamy” and others like it. The only way out of a crisis is through it; and the best way to get through it is to do it together.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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