Another Pearl Harbor?

In September 2001, I was a 20 year old from the northeast beginning a domestic exchange to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This was the farthest from home I had ever ventured. With the time difference, I was still asleep when the initial attack occurred. My then-girlfriend (now wife) called me and told me to get to a TV. I wandered out into a common area of my dorm and found someone there watching the news on a laptop and couldn't believe what I was seeing. After connecting with family, I continued to watch TV for the next 2 weeks straight, or so it felt. My friends and I attended candlelight vigils and other gatherings. At one on 9/12, I was photographed consoling a fellow student who was breaking down because he was unsure of the status of family members in NYC. That photo was published on the cover of the university's newspaper. I see it now and remember that I had never experienced such raw emotions or felt so connected to total strangers.

There were many comparisons of 9/11 to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII, which was already at the front of everyone's mind on Oahu in the leadup to the 60th anniversary commemoration. Now the island seemed to come alive with military activity--helicopters, jets, and armed soldiers were visible all over the place, and I couldn't help but wonder if this is how it felt after December 7, 1941.

I didn't know how to grieve or cope, so I would go over to the beautiful National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl) where I would often be the only visitor. Fittingly, I visited the graves of those lost at Pearl Harbor and of Ellison Onizuka, an astronaut that died in the Challenger explosion (the other defining tragedy of my generation). And I would just sit and think and try to process everything. I needed that space. Hawaii is a wonderful place, but so far removed from mainland US--and with a rich and complicated history--that the public's reaction was more mixed than the comforting patriotic unity that I was seeing on TV.

Stepping back, I feel that you can't just remember 9/11, the day, the attacks and the immediate aftermath, without acknowledging the resulting violence and loss that followed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think about all of the brave service men and women from my generation and younger that died or suffered injuries--both physical and mental--as a result of the attacks and the decisions made in their wake. And as we watch the withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years later, we are reminded of how 9/11 continues to impact the lives of countless innocent people around the world.

Our responsibility now and in the future is to remember, ask hard questions, and try to learn from the past.

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