In less than two weeks, we’ll mark the 74th anniversary of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States’ entry into World War II — a familiar and solemn annual ritual for many in Hawaii.

That merciless Japanese assault killed 2,403 Americans — including 49 civilians in and around Honolulu proper — and injured another 1,178. What’s recalled less frequently than the attack is how, for the most part, the people of these islands we now call home courageously picked themselves up afterward and went forward with their lives. 

Despite the horror they had experienced, despite suspicions of complicity that set neighbor against neighbor, and despite racist policies pursued against Japanese Americans, the people of Hawaii consoled one another, rebuilt and moved on, even on Oahu, where the combined number of killed and injured represented nearly 1.5 percent of the island’s population.

Survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack pay their respects in the 2006 commemoration of that horrific day to those who perished in the conflict.

In this file photo from 2006, survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack pay their respects to those who perished in the conflict on that horrific day in 1941.

U.S. Navy

An estimated 30,000 people fled Hawaii in the days and weeks after the attack, most of them military dependents evacuated to the mainland. But the overwhelming majority stayed, and the 1950 U.S. Census showed that the population on Oahu grew by nearly 100,000 from the 1940 count.

We’ll have another opportunity to pay homage to the Greatest Generation on Dec. 7, when the handful of remaining survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack gather once more on Oahu, along with thousands of others, to recall the day that will live in infamy.

The events of the last 12 days have brought Hawaii’s iconic World War II history to mind more than once, and often not in ways that do the memories proud of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in 1941.

Ever sensitive to the whims of the news cycle, politicians around the country have reacted to the attacks and their constituents’ concerns — too often, badly.

As all but the least informed know by now, the shocking terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 killed 130 people and wounded another 350. Around the world, news media have relentlessly told and retold the story of the attack and the aftermath, including accounts of hundreds of law enforcement raids in France and Belgium that have killed or taken into custody dozens of terrorist suspects.

Readers and viewers have taken to social media and comment boards, spreading not just their thoughts, but, too often, abject panic over both the attacks and the metastasizing global cancer that is Daesh/ISIL/ISIS/the Islamic State. Ever sensitive to the whims of the news cycle, politicians around the country have reacted to the attacks and their constituents’ concerns — too often, badly.

It all leaves a depressing, lingering impression about the changing nature of the American character. Consider a few examples:

  • Southwest Airlines capitulated to fears of Muslims on three separate incidents over the past week. A Chicago gate agent refused to let two men board their flight after a frightened passenger overheard them speaking Arabic. A second incident in Chicago saw the airline remove six Muslim men from a plane because some other passengers said they were “uncomfortable” flying with them. Southwest actually diverted a flight in the third incident over three men who seemed “suspicious.” The plane was searched, revealing nothing, and the men were re-booked on another flight.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives last week gave lopsided approval to a bill that would target Iraqi and Syrian refugees for an unprecedented level of additional vetting before allowing them in this country, despite the fact that the current process already subjects them to extraordinary additional review, often spanning two years or more. Regrettably, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was among the “aye” votes.
  • Presidential aspirants from Mike Huckabee to Ben Carson called for Syrian refugees to be barred from entering the country entirely, while Ted Cruz said he will introduce a bill making that a reality. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump called for all Muslims in the United States to be placed on a registry. He and Carson both claimed in media coverage over the weekend — falsely — that they had personally seen film of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the 9/11 attacks (Carson recalled he had watched it on “the newsreels.”) There is no such film.
The final House vote on a bill that would single out Iraqi and Syrian refugees for vetting beyond the already extensive process before being admitted to the United States.

The final House vote on a bill that would single out Iraqi and Syrian refugees for vetting beyond the already extensive process before being admitted to the United States.

Back in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige touched off a minor panic with the mere assertion that if any Syrian refugees were sent to Hawaii, he’d welcome them. For the record, the State Department hasn’t sent a single Syrian refugee to Hawaii over the past decade, and its policies for placing refugees make it unlikely that it ever will.

Within days, Ige was the target of a nasty petition drive for impeachment at change.org. It’s hard to say what is more shocking in that effort — the nakedly racist, semi-literate preamble to the petition, or that it has been signed by 2,650 people as of this writing.

One wonders how differently things might have played out in Hawaii 74 years ago, had our ancestors had Facebook accounts, Rush Limbaugh and 24-hour cable news networks.

Have we always had so many cowards in America? Or is it just that the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have given so many of the fearful a platform and airtime to announce to the world that they are very, very afraid, and you should be, too?

To be sure, during World War II, the treatment of Japanese Americans was abominable and, in the rear-view mirror, indefensible. And there were certainly moments when fear and hatred showed themselves in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when Muslims and those mistaken for Muslims were unacceptably made to feel outcast in many communities, physically attacked in scores of incidents and even murdered in isolated incidents in the months that followed. Then, too, politicians rushed to surrender our civil liberties for the sake of security.

But both those unseemly periods followed real, spectacular attacks  — one, an act of undeclared war, one an act of mass murder — in which thousands of men, women and children actually lost their lives on American soil. To this day, these events remain the deadliest attacks ever experienced within the United States. Bombs destroying major military installations and jetliners crashing into skyscrapers are not the same as orphaned refugees and families seeking asylum in the land of the free and the home of the (maybe not so) brave.

One wonders how differently things might have played out in Hawaii 74 years ago, had that generation had Facebook accounts, Rush Limbaugh and 24-hour cable news networks.

Terrorism does pose real danger. But it makes no more sense to fear every Muslim or every person from the Middle East than it would to fear every veteran because Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building or every Christian because Eric Rudolph bombed Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.

We are not at war with Islam. We are not at war with Syrian refugees, or with Arabs. To the extent we are at war, it is with ideological death cults that most Muslims abhor. The present attacks played out entirely in Europe and Africa, with nary a U.S. casualty on American soil. They were conducted by French, Belgian and Algerian nationals, not Syrian or Iraqi refugees, making the demagoguery by the House all the more contemptible.

Following 9/11, we ultimately rejected the fear that is terrorism’s stock in trade and upheld the values that lie at the heart of our democracy. It wasn’t easy, and it sometimes wasn’t pretty, but as a nation, we showed courage, from the first responders who rushed into the smoke and carnage of lower Manhattan to rescue who they could, to those who lined up  around the country to donate blood, to those who defended their Muslim neighbors against intolerance. A lot of Americans showed true courage. And together we learned the lesson that the legendary Nelson Mandela described when he said that “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Fourteen years later and 74 years after Pearl Harbor, are we made now of lesser stuff?

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