Arial view of WTC in March of 2001
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The twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and in the skies over Pennsylvania, demands considered reflection.

Two decades provide useful distance for relatively dispassionate discussion of how we reacted to the shocking, grotesque mass murder. The shorthand reference to the horror is “9/11”. How would an objective analyst evaluate the response of us Americans?

            Concerning our national institutions and behavior as people, there is solid justification for high marks. Despite the terrible nature of the attacks, and the thousands of deaths of Americans as well as citizens of other countries, as a national community we were remarkably mature.

The population as a whole did not react with hysteria or any extremism. Such incidents that occurred were infrequent, relatively isolated and have waned over time. Illegal anti-Islamic acts brought prosecution.

The clearest parallel event to 9/11 is Japan’s surprise attack on United States military forces at Pearl Harbor Hawaii on December 7, 1941, which had severe, continuing repercussions within our social and political life. Intense fear as well as anger led to the internment and widespread persecution of Japanese-Americans on much of the West Coast of the U.S. Brutal island combat in the Pacific war brought atrocities on both sides, though arguably, that is in the unavoidable nature of war.

Internment was contrary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime emphasis on national unity, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed the move, but politically ambitious California Attorney General Earl Warren was adamant. This context makes all the more heroic the military service of Japanese-American troops in the European theatre.

            Persecution of Japanese-Americans is particularly notorious but not entirely unique. There was less extensive discrimination against German-Americans during both World War I and World War II and against Italian-Americans in the latter conflict. During the Civil War, bloody riots in the North against the military draft included beating and murder of African-Americans.

            Against this backdrop, American tolerance of Islamic-Americans and Moslems in general in the aftermath of 9/11 is impressive and noteworthy. In a fundamental way, Americans have demonstrated maturity that is both ethically right and practically helpful.

Terrorist groups want to promote discord within our borders, along with anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment elsewhere. To date, they fail in any way strategically significant.

Failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor strike reflected inter-service rivalry and intelligence limitations, plus arrogance about Japan’s military effectiveness. In reality, Japan’s navy, with stunning efficiency, had destroyed the Russian fleet only a few decades earlier

Pearl Harbor demonstrated Tokyo’s innovative use of tactical aircraft for strategic destruction of capital ships. American commanders failed to foresee this, although the British earlier used the same strategy successfully against Italy’s navy.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, more worried than most about a Japanese attack, acted to keep aircraft carriers safely at sea. However, he was concerned primarily about submarine rather than air attack at Pearl.

Likewise, rivalries among our intelligence services along with cultural arrogance facilitated 9/11.

            Immediately after 9/11, the United Nations and NATO acted, with unity. This marked the first wartime deployment of the military alliance.

Americans should feel considerable pride about how we as a people responded to grotesque mass murder within our borders. This benchmark date of two decades provides opportunity for reflection – and renewal.

That is especially important given our Afghanistan disaster.

Learn More: Roberta Wohlstetter, “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision”

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan) and other books. Contact