Twelve months ago, we wrung the thesaurus dry to put words to the unspeakable. We worked our way through "grief, horror, devastation, tragedy," to two words that worked: Pearl Harbor.
A nation that dodges history lessons had to reach back 60 years to find something to hang its pain on, to bookend Sept. 11 with a fellow nightmare, "Not since Pearl Harbor.... "
It's 12 months later; does the comparison still hold? Through tomorrow's hundreds of hours of radio and TV rehash, through the candlelight vigils and memorial speeches, are we still a nation in sync with the America of Pearl Harbor plus one?
Then, as now, we were at war, but of an altogether different order. Pearl Harbor anniversary observances had less to do with warm and fuzzy and cathartic ceremonies that might work for the 6 o'clock news than they did with the urgency of the war at hand. In December 1942, radios broadcast the brief anniversary events live onto the assembly floors of aircraft plants; aircraft workers who hadn't had a day off in a year stopped for the moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, the time the first Japanese bomb fell.
There are places in this country entitled to any measure of grief tomorrow: in New York, Washington, a rumpled piece of landscape in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, in several thousand homes and offices and churches where beds and chairs and pews are still empty.
For the rest of us, we will immerse ourselves in the national bathos of candles and flags because, unlike Pearl Harbor plus one, we have so little to focus on anywhere else. Only a diffuse war against an elusive enemy, and the prospect of another war against a new enemy. The best advice I've heard from the Bush White House has come out of the East Wing, from Laura Bush: If you have kids, turn off the TV.
I rolled through the microfilmed pages of the L.A.Times from December 1942, looking for parallels between America then and America tomorrow. Then, as now, Americans had endured a year of brutal, front-page geography lessons: Bataan, Corregidor, the Coral Sea ... Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-I-Sharif.
In Los Angeles, Pearl Harbor plus one was about "confidence and resolution." After the moment of silence, and taps, a mock-up village across from City Hall--complete with picket fences, flower beds, clotheslines and a fake hotel--was bombed so that emergency workers could show off their home-front skills.
On Olvera Street, you could pay 10 cents for a candle, proceeds to buy war bonds, and join a commemorative procession. An "all-soldier colored chorus" sang in Pershing Square, where a captured Japanese sub on exhibition sent the one-year war bond sales total for Pershing Square alone over the $3 million mark.
Today's businesses despair over advertising on Sept. 11.
For the Pearl Harbor anniversary, Bullock's department store ran a poem, "Pearl Harbor Speaks," in the voice of a dead sailor, reading in part, "I died in vain if sons of my young son must walk the tragic path that I have trod." In some ads, Uncle Sam and Santa appeared side by side.
The Treasury Department took out a full-page ad congratulating the hundreds of companies whose employees had made 10% payroll deductions to buy war bonds: a Santa Paula bank, a Banning grocery, a San Luis Obispo liquor store, an Anaheim tractor company.
Phrases from then sound uneasily like now. A columnist wrote that the enemy "figured [Uncle Sam's] children were too soft, too rich, too comfortable, too peaceful and too divided to ever get together and put [Uncle Sam] back on his feet and in fighting trim," which sounds much like the contemptuous language some terrorists have used, which begs the questions: Are we? Is the comparison even fair?
The papers of December 1942 were full of news about rationing. Pencil production was cut; there was no rubber for erasers. By Christmas 1942 there would be no more chocolate to spare for Santa Clauses or Easter bunnies. The county clerk began using shoelaces instead of precious metal clips to tie up official documents. Schoolchildren learned how to hide under a table in case of attack.
By comparison, America today feels distant, untouched. Nobody's been drafted. No sacrifices have been asked. The airport's a hassle, but so what? Enron and that ilk, far from acting patriotically, have been exposed as greedy fraudsters; in 1942 they'd have been called profiteers.
A Gallup poll from December 1942 found that most Americans supported a war sales tax. What we hear out of Washington now is more tax-cut talk.
In December 1942, comic strip character Dixie Dugan fumed about speeders using too much gas--and put rocks in the street to make cars slow down. Today, nobody's turning in their SUVs to strike a blow against the oil-igarchs. Ford is shutting down its electric car project altogether.
Sept. 11 plus one. It's come much too soon for us, and, if we're fortunate, not too late.
Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.