Pearl Harbor at 75 – a day of infamy

A line of Pearl Harbor survivors salute during taps while participating at a Pearl Harbor Commemoration in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008.
A line of Pearl Harbor survivors salute during taps while participating at a Pearl Harbor Commemoration in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. AP

The number of American survivors still alive after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, dwindles with each passing year.

But the memory lives on — of the attacks and the resolve with which our nation joined World War II. The allied forces were ultimately able to defeat the nationalist goals of fascist movements on multiple continents.

The 2016 remembrance, which takes place today, is the 75th and certainly not the last.

All told, 2,403 Americans lost their lives as a result of the Japanese attacks. Twenty-one U.S. ships were sunk or seriously damaged and 188 planes were ruined. Then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it a day that would live in infamy.

As veterans die and new threats to our nation grow larger in the American psyche, it is fair to wonder how long our country will take time to reflect on this moment.

One relatively recent moment in history had a similar, visceral quality. That was Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida jihadists hijacked four planes, using two to destroy the World Trade Center in New York City and one to attack the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Pearl Harbor occurred at a more innocent time — before the U.S. fully realized what a vast industrial power it had become.

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, as Gov. Jay Inslee called today in a proclamation, serves as a reminder that while military force is not the wellspring of freedom or democracy, it is essential to defend our western values against real enemies.

The generation that responded to those attacks and saved the free world from the forces of nationalism in Asia and Europe in the 1940s was once described by retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw “The Greatest Generation.”

That is a fair term, describing a generation that came of age in the midst of a battle for western democracy. The war’s outcome was not assured, and the individual sacrifices were astounding.

Pearl Harbor also serves as a reminder that when a nation’s pride or psyche is wounded or its homeland invaded, unruly passion is stirred. Sometimes that is followed by superhuman acts and heroism, but sometimes also by bad decisions and regrettable harms.

The Japanese attack on the Navy’s Pacific Fleet motivated Americans to volunteer for military service and spurred our nation’s entry into war.

Those were necessary things. The sacrifices were enormous.

But it cannot be glossed over that our country, led by Roosevelt, rounded up U.S. citizens of Japanese-American ancestry and put them in internment camps. This was done out of blind fears that these citizens of Asian ancestry would ally themselves with the would-be invaders. Fortunately our country has apologized for that error.

We are still paying for another error after 9/11 — the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which had not launched the attacks of 9/11. We as Americans are still paying for that colossal error.

After other smaller terror attacks linked to jihadists and people of Arab ancestry in the U.S., Americans elected a man as president who has flirted with the idea of banning Muslims from our country and having registries to keep track of those who are here.

We should remember the past but not repeat its errors.