September 11: Twelve Years Later

It's hard to believe it's been 12 years already. On this sad anniversary, we thought we'd take a look back at the first piece HONOLULU Magazine published in response to the attacks: an Afterthoughts column by A. Kam Napier that ran in our October 2001 issue. His essay is reproduced, below.

There wasn't much traffic on H-1 that morning, but it crawled nonetheless. Everyone paid more attention to their radios than to the road, trying to find out what the hell happened. September 11 had happened, hijackers driving airliners into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon and into the ground outside Pittsburg, Pa.

In our offices at 36 Merchant Street, people gathered around the sole TV in the conference room, watching footage of the World Trade Center towers collapse—surreally, as if the buildings spontaneously converted to dust. Others stared into their computers, logged onto, aghast at video clips of people leaping from New York office windows.

Unfathomable. Unspeakable. Unparalleled.

The worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor, we heard again and again that day. True, and yet Sept. 11, 2001, was so unlike that Dec. 7, 1941, attack that one wonders if anything we learned from Pearl Harbor even applies.

The Pearl Harbor attack was conducted by official Japanese military personnel against official American military personnel. Relatively few civilians were killed, and none had been targeted outright. Brutal and surprising as it was, we knew how to categorize Pearl Harbor—as state policy, an act of war. And that would be the end of it. Those were the 20th-century rules and every country played by them.

At first, no one knew who committed September 11, or exactly why, only that "overseas terrorism" was suspected. And instead of an enemy carrier battle group, it took just a handful of people at the controls of four airliners to kill thousands of civilian Americans. This is a radically different kind of attack than Pearl Harbor was. There are no rules for us to follow in our response. Is this the beginning of something or the end of something? We don't know. What do we do now? We don't know. Was this an act of crime or an act of war, or is there even a distinction?

So much is different. But some lessons from Pearl Harbor do very much apply, the same lessons that apply to any sudden disaster, natural or manmade.

First, it's going to take a long time to fully understand this. There will be rumors and speculation. Don't listen to any of them. Don't contribute to them. And, this may sound strange coming from a journalist, but be skeptical even about what you've heard in the news, especially the 24-hour-a-day variety—CNN has to yammer, day and night, even when it doesn't know anything. The result is a lot of nonsense and rushes to judgment (remember the 2000 presidential election).

The clearest, most factual reports about any disaster come long after the fact. These are the reports to wait for and act on. Facts are your only friends. Be patient.

The other lesson is that Americans historically rally together in adversity. At least, that is the idealized image we hold of ourselves. I was glad to see us all proceed with our day on September 11. We very sensibly grounded all the airplanes, yes. And maybe we are all just in shock and didn't know what else to do with ourselves, but most of us in the Islands went to work, went to school, just like normal. I was comforted somehow by the sight of a photocopier repairman setting our errant Richoh FT6665 to rights. Good for all of us. Business as usual. Don't let those terrorist bastards see you sweat.

Remember what President George W. Bush said the day of the attack, that those responsible "will be hunted down and punished."

But I hope that in the hunt for justice we don't lose sight of something else Bush said in that address, in fact, the first thing he said: "Freedom will be defended."

Without a doubt, we're going to be a different America after this attack, in ways we can't even imagine yet. And here's where we can really take the lessons of Pearl Harbor to heart—the long, unconstitutional, martial law that gripped the Islands under U.S. military rule throughout most of the war; the morally suspect internment of Japanese, Austrians, Italians and Germans living in America; the rush to crucify some U.S. leaders for our collective defeat. These are mistakes we do not have to repeat in response to September 11.

What do we do, a friend of mine posed to me that morning, when history asks the question, "What are you made of?"

Let's prove that Americans are truly made of bravery, lawfulness, optimism and good sense.