Honor, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11

A woman wrapped in a U.S. flag - a symbol of honor

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Seventy-eight years ago, on December 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The strike destroyed ships, damaged airfields, and killed over 2,400 people. One thousand more were wounded. Called by President Roosevelt “a date which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941 changed the course of history, bringing the United States into World War II. [1] Those who lived through it thought it would live in our memories forever.

But time moves on. For most people alive today, Pearl Harbor is a blip in a history book or online article. Being closer to us in time, 9/11 feeds more anguish and anger in our country today than does the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, it happened almost twenty years ago. My children don’t remember much about, and it doesn’t mean a lot to them. Most of today’s teens weren’t even born when the Twin Towers fell. The bombing at Pearl Harbor seems to them like ancient history. Why should they care?

Gaining Perspective

As with any historical event, we care because history gives us perspective. Of course, as Patrick Bizzaro reminds us, “history is the story of the teller.” [2] He gives the example of the Civil War, noting that what he learned about it as a child growing up in the North was significantly different from how the story is told by his Southern neighbors in the community where he now lives. Whether purposefully or not, every memory passed down to us, and that we pass down, is crafted to present a particular message. To confuse things even more, memory is notoriously unreliable. As I talked about last week, we invent ourselves with our stories.

Even so, if we are willing to look at the past from multiple perspectives, we can learn something important. So let’s look at these two attacks.

An amazing act of vengeance perpetrated by an angry band of criminals, 9/11 ultimately caused us more damage than did Pearl Harbor, yet both events woke us up, terrifying and enraging us. After Pearl Harbor, it was clear to most everyone that we must fight back, and President Roosevelt declared war the next day.

9/11 was more complex, seeming more like a criminal act than another nation’s attack. It took longer for President Bush to spin a story that would justify our bombing of Afghanistan than for Roosevelt to launch us into World War II.

What Might Have Been

During the period between the plane crashes of 9/11 and our bombing of Afghanistan, some of us hoped Bush might make a considered decision. After all, people’s lives were at stake. We hoped he’d use legal channels to pursue those behind the attack, or at least use the horror and compassion expressed throughout the world by this heinous event to gain us allies in a rational search for justice. Maybe we could have collaborated with other countries, bonded with Muslims who were as horrified at the acts of their compatriots as we were. Yes, there was celebration in places. As Keith B. Richburg put it, some communities were glad that “the swaggering superpower had met its comeuppance.” [3.] Even so, could we not have capitalized on the sympathy of our allies?

For instance, what if we had sought to understand? Were there reasons anger was directed at us, reasons worth considering? If instead of letting our fear and anger overwhelm us we had taken a moment to recognize that our honor and our sanctity were not the only important issues here, surely the world would be a different place. I like to think it would be better.

The Trouble with Honor

But our code of honor does not allow us to reflect. When we feel endangered or demeaned, we fight. There’s no other possibility. The idea that we would reach out to our neighbors, grieve with them, share our shock and concern, behave like friends, was more ridiculous than I realized at the time. To regain our pride and our honor, we had to be heroes, and in our world, heroes do battle.

Our response to Pearl Harbor was like that, too, a visceral impulse that launched us into a war we had previously shunned. Before we seemed not to care that people were dying in Germany and surrounding nations. At least, we weren’t willing to involve ourselves. It takes a lot for us to care about someone else, especially someone from across the sea. It is not certain we would ever have intervened had we not felt personally violated.

So, as humans around the world have often done, after both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we struck back. Someone had to be the target for our rage. When we feel frustrated, humiliated, or angry, we often take our feelings out on those around us, even if they have nothing to do with our pain. Although it was clear that Japan was at fault for the bombing in 1941, the ones who died in our attacks on their country had no input into the decision of their leaders. Nor did the Afghans who died when we chose them as our target.

Vengeance is often imprecise and leads to unceasing aggression and violence. As Terry Pratchett wrote in his Discworld novel, Monstrous Regiment, “revenge is not redress.” [4]

Honor and Respect

Unfortunately, revenge tends to feel good. At least for a moment. And that moment of reward is enough to teach our brains that fighting back is enjoyable. Besides, if we don’t fight back, we will lose face, and losing face hurts. That’s because it is shameful.

The opposite of shame is honor. That’s what inspires us to live with integrity, stand by our colleagues, protect our communities, follow through on our commitments, be courageous even in the face of death. We need honor. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, points out that, since it exists within us today, we can confidently assume that the earliest human societies lived by codes of honor that helped them stay together, kept them safe, and maintained order. Throughout the world, people take codes of honor seriously. [5]

Appiah understands honor as a kind of respect. We can gain respect because of what we have done in life. It’s something we earn, whether through excellent performance or unusual kindness.

Recognition Respect

There’s another kind of respect, though, which Appiah calls “recognition respect.” This can be a way of revering the inherent dignity in each of us. We show respect by being gentle around someone who is sensitive or by helping someone who is struggling. [6] We show respect by treading softly on the earth and seeking to understand.

There’s a more sinister side to recognition respect, though. People in positions of power claim it, whether they deserve it or not. When someone has the capacity to hurt us if we defy them, we tend to do what they say. Obedience thus becomes a show of respect. Tyrants receive this kind of respect, for instance, as do nations with great military strength. It is a kind of deference, and I guess it feels good to those who receive it, but because it is forced rather than earned, it exists only on the surface. It isn’t true respect, and it isn’t honorable, even if the powerful like to think it is.

Not that people in power never deserve respect. Many of them do. But if we only show respect to someone because she make us, there’s not much honor there. Yet these are the people, the ones who are least honorable, who react most violently to attacks on their honor. In this way, honor can keep us at each other’s throats.

Honor: Changing the Code

Honor’s not all bad, though. As we saw, it can be a wonderful thing, causing us to sacrifice ourselves for others and behave responsibly. Honorable people keep society sane and pass their values on to their children.

Over time, however, those values and codes of honor dependent upon them change. For instance, as Appiah explores in his book, dueling used to be an accepted recourse for a gentleman who had been disrespected. Also, in this country and abroad, slavery had been a perfectly honorable way to acquire a labor pool. Among upper class women in China, foot-binding was once a badge of honor.

Eventually, though, communities came to recognize how shameful these practices were. The behaviors stopped being acceptable. Men no longer dueled, slavery became illegal in England, and Chinese mothers refused to crush their daughters’ feet.

That doesn’t mean we stopped oppressing people of color, and slavery still exists in sweatshops, wealthy homes, and brothels. Throughout the world, women continue to endure torment in the name of honor, such as in Pakistan where a woman can be murdered by her family if she is raped, because by being so attacked, she brings them shame. Honor, pride, shame, entitlement, and violence are part of being human and show no sign of going away. It’s human nature to do battle when we feel aggrieved.

Changing Public Opinion

Yet just as public opinion stopped dueling, slavery, and foot-binding, so, Appiah believes, it can stop the egregious assaults on women in the Middle East. When we change our understanding of what is honorable and what is shameful, we can change our behavior and that of others. It’s not reason that changes history, but public opinion.

For instance, rational arguments against foot-binding had no effect on the practice, but when advocates started pointing out how shameful these upper-class men and women appeared to the rest of the world because of women’s tiny and broken feet, the Chinese stopped maiming them.

Appiah acknowledges that each of these behavioral changes “was part of a longer, larger revolution in moral sentiments,” one that has changed how we view class, race, gender, and hierarchy in general. [7] This revolution continues, for better and for worse. Appiah suggests purposefully manipulating the arc of that revolution by resorting to the shame of public opinion. For instance, if we would shame the perpetrator more than the victim, we might be able to stop violence against women.

Before we can do that, though, we need “to tame honor’s thirst for blood.” [8] After all, if we are shameless, or if, like people who beat, mutilate, rape, and murder women, we are so reactive that we can’t help but take our shame out on those around us, public opinion is unlikely to stop us.

Stopping the Violence

So what will stop us?

In an interview for The Sun magazine, Parker Palmer said, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” [9] Miserable individuals lash out at others or harm themselves through substance abuse or overeating. Suffering countries jump into wars.

We are all suffering. Our own and many other nations around the world are rocked by name-calling, blaming, and reactivity. There is upheaval throughout the earth because of all we have done to our planet. Greed, hatred, and fear are tearing us apart. As Palmer says in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, we are grieving. He points to “what some have called the ‘politics of rage,’” saying it reminds him of when he was younger and felt a deep and burning anger in himself. It took a while for him to understand what was going on. Using introspection and conversation with trusted advisers, he came to see that beneath his anger lay a terrible grief. Life trials, failures, and disappointments had shown him that he wasn’t as noble as he’d once believed, and that broke his heart. [10]

The Politics of the Broken-Hearted

To have our honor challenged is intensely painful. When the challenging makes sense, the pain is even worse. How many of us can see the ways we fall short and not cover the resulting sadness with distraction, addiction, bullying, or violence? Not many.

Palmer suggests that our country is experiencing this kind of shame and sadness right now. The “politics of rage” that has arisen as a result is itself a cover up. Really, he says, we are experiencing a “’politics of the brokenhearted.’” [11]

In her essay, “To Any Would-Be Terrorists,” Naomi Shihab Nye also talked about our broken hearts. We all are heartbroken, she tells us. None of us is exempt from this pain. To fix it, we must talk to one another, tell each other about our suffering. She insists that only by using words can we understand each other. “Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message.” [12]

Let us talk.

A Common Enemy

They say humans only come together when a common enemy strikes. Pearl Harbor Day and 9/11 were both considered godsends for this reason, because, at least so the story goes, our country rallied as one. [13]

Well, we have a common enemy now, and it is us. We repeatedly oppress one another and destroy our habitat. Is there no way to stop our greed, our lust, our addiction? Can we not live with a true code of honor that will not be so easily wounded? As Appiah asks, “why, if you are worthy of respect, should the mere fact that someone disrespects you matter?” [14]

Yes, why?

The answer, Palmer and Nye both tell us, is because our hearts are broken and we have no one we trust to talk to. Yet if we start, you and I, to share our words and our story and our truth, it will make a difference. Let us tell one another our fears and reveal our vulnerabilities. Acknowledge our shame aloud and tell the story of how our hearts got broken in the first place. Then we may start to heal. And when we listen to one another’s tale, not only does the teller heal, but the listener does, as well.

Coming Together in Honor

I don’t know how well shaming will work as we try to create true equality and respect among peoples. Appiah might be right to suggest it as a useful tool. There’s an evolutionary reason we experience shame. It helps us do what is right according to our values.

The important thing, then, is to make sure our values are ones that invite acceptance, compassion, beauty, dialogue, listening, truth, and a deep and honorable integrity. We need to invite the kind of love that cuts through the core of our shame and helps us laugh at disrespect rather than lash out. When we support one another in this way, we may find we no longer lust for violence.

Laugh, dance, read poetry, sip tea, sing from your heart even if your voice cracks, cry from the depths of your heartbroken soul, and hold hands with someone you don’t know. Be honorable not by fighting, but by feeding children, tending to the sick, enacting humane laws, cleaning up the environment, walking with God, sharing your wealth, being honest, speaking tenderly.

To do this is a risk, for many people will not love you for it, but living is a risk. What would be the point if it were easy? Where would be the honor if it didn’t take sacrifice?

In faith and fondness,



  1. Dower, John w. Cultures of War, New York: W. W. Norton, 2010, 3.
  2. Bizzaro, Patrick, “Houses of History Are Made of Words: A Short Essay About Feeling and Language,” Heyen, William, ed. September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, Silver Springs, MD: Etruscan Press, 2002, 47-50, 49.
  3. Richburg, Keith B., “After 9/11, Global Solidarity Short-Lived,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/after-911-global-solidarity-short-lived/2011/09/05/gIQAJMa17J_story.html, accessed 12/7/19.
  4. Pratchett, Terry, Monstrous Regiment, New York: Harper Audio, 2004, 10:28:01.
  5. Appiah, Kwame Anthony, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010, 187.
  6. Ibid 13.
  7. Ibid 188.
  8. Ibid 188.
  9. Von Stamwitz, Alicia, “If Only We Would Listen: Parker J. Palmer on What We Could Learn About Politics, Faith, and Each Other,” The Sun, November 2012, https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/443/if-only-we-would-listen, accessed 12/3/19.
  10. Palmer, Parker, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011, 181.
  11. Ibid 181.
  12. Nye, Naomi Shihab “To Any Would-Be Terrorists,” Heyen, William, ed. September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, Silver Springs, MD: Etruscan Press, 2002, 287-291, 291.
  13. Dower, John w. Cultures of War, New York: W. W. Norton, 2010, 139.
  14. Appiah 19.

Photo by Dan Russo on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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