"THE FACTS OF YESTERDAY," President Roosevelt told the country on December 8, 1941, "speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation."
As well they did. Tragedies and naked acts of aggression have a way of bringing moral clarity both to men and nations. Prior to the date that lives in infamy, America was a country desperately trying to remain neutral in a world riven by the rise of expansionist, authoritarian powers. Then its enemies announced themselves, and rendered neutrality a morally unjustifiable position.
As many have observed, September 11, 2001 is another date that will live in infamy. And the three months that have followed it have marked a similar period of moral clarity.
We knew, well before Sept. 11, about the dangers and designs of radical Islam there was no shortage of less spectacular terrorist attacks to remind us. But it was a reality the country hoped to ignore or make disappear through negotiation and appeasement. It took the unmistakable devastation, the insult, and the horror of losing thousands of Americans on our own soil to make us recognize that we are threatened by an undeniable evil, and the only way to defeat it is to destroy it outright.
That newly heightened sense of moral clarity has been evident in the swift, unambiguous, and bipartisan denunciations of Yasser Arafat that have followed the latest round of Palestinian terror in Israel. In the past, such incidents prompted American officials to offer all sorts of excuses for Arafat’s inability or refusal to seize the terrorists in the territory he controls. They condemned Israel’s retaliation more loudly than they condemned the attacks that provoked it. They expected Israel to ignore terror, to make it disappear through negotiation and appeasement
Now, President George W. Bush, who only weeks earlier endorsed Palestinian statehood, has lumped Arafat into the same category as the Taliban and others who harbor (and thus support) terrorists. Even Hillary Clinton who once publicly gave a kiss to Arafat’s wife after the Palestinian First Lady had just delivered a venomous speech accusing Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children with toxic gases finally seems to get it. "This rests squarely on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat," she told the New York Post. "His unwillingness and refusal to … round up and keep imprisoned terrorists sends a clear signal to those who not only wish to undermine the efforts of our government. It also sends a clear signal that no one is safe."
But moral clarity, though precious, is too often fleeting.
In his Pearl Harbor speech, Roosevelt vowed that "always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us." It was a strong statement, but was it true? Has America’s sense of outrage and disgust over the Japanese attack dulled in the intervening 60 years?
Earlier this year, editors of the Los Angeles Times decreed that reporters were no longer to refer to Pearl Harbor as a "sneak attack." Melissa McCoy, the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of the copy desk, tried her best to justify her decision to the New York Times. "You cannot say that ‘sneak attack’ is not accurate," she said, "but especially, I think, in California, this era in our history is particularly painful."
"Surprise attack," the editors advised, would be a more sensitive construction. Sensitivity had come to matter more than accuracy.
In my own high-school and college history classes, more time was spent discussing the horrors of Japanese-American internment than the treachery of the Imperial Navy on Dec. 7 (let alone, say, the rape of Nanking). And no discussion of Pearl Harbor was complete without the obligatory litany of American offenses that might have "caused" the attack, as well as the theory that FDR knew Japan was planning the raid but did nothing so he could use the event to whip up a public appetite for war.
On December 8, 1941, few Americans were under the illusion that their country was perfect, but fewer still had any doubts about which side had the obvious moral upper-hand. Over time, that moral clarity became muddled.
And in this age, when everything moves at a faster rate and emotion drives so much of political discourse, there’s reason to fear that in some instances, anyway, the moral clarity brought about by Sept. 11 has already begun to fade.
Note Democrats’ incessant hand-wringing about President Bush’s decision to use military tribunals to prosecute terrorists overseas, as if Operation Enduring Freedom were a police action, not a war. Consider their carping about the Northern Alliance’s treatment of its captured enemies, which, for war, especially in Afghanistan, is hardly unusual. Even the strange sympathy the establishment media have shown for John Walker Lindh, the American traitor who converted to Islam and joined the Taliban and Al Qaeda, suggests a loss of perspective.
It’s a dangerous trend, and one that must be countered vigilantly. America can only triumph over its enemies in the confidence that whatever its shortcomings or imperfections, it is on the side of good in a monumental struggle against evil.
It will take nothing less than what Roosevelt described in 1941 as "the unbounding determination of our people" to gain "the inevitable triumph so help us God."