HARTFORD, Conn. - Within minutes of the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, Tom Brokaw of NBC News was declaring war on terrorism. On almost every TV channel, references to Pearl Harbor were flying even before the Center towers collapsed.
The daily news has been called the first draft of history. Some people in the media seem eager to turn in their first draft while events are still going on. This is irresponsible reporting and dangerous history.
War fever is never more vicious than when it is unfocused, when the enemy is not yet clearly identified and war aims are not yet spelled out. It is then that civil liberties, human values and democratic institutions are most at risk.
One thing we can sure of: The attacks on the World Trade Center were not another Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11, 2001, was surely, like Dec. 7, 1941, a "day that will live in infamy," in the words of President Roosevelt, and both catastrophes came by air. There the similarities end.
In December 1941, the world had been at war for more than two years. There was never the slightest mystery about who carried out the attack, and a war declaration by the United States was inevitable. Today, it is by no means clear who sent the hijacked planes into their targets or why. And even when the culprits become known, it is by no means clear that war will be the best way to punish and stop them.
The astonishing fact is that the world has been moving away from war. The last decade has witnessed awful carnage in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but nothing resembling the nightmares of the past century. The Cold War ended almost without bloodshed 12 years ago. Since then, there has been heartening progress toward global solidarities to confront common problems.
If we are provoked into war, it will involve none of the massive military campaigns of World War II. It will more resemble a cold war of antagonism always on the edge of hot war, with similar costs: titanic sums of money spent on security, civil liberties curbed, anxiety and paranoia displacing hope and trust, the life of the mind constricted and contorted, and vast opportunities for human betterment lost.
World War I may have the most to teach us. In 1917, acting on the pretext that German submarine attacks had forced the United States into belligerency, President Woodrow Wilson gave up peacemaking efforts and led this country into what he called "a war to end all wars."
Privately, Wilson had darker thoughts about the costs of World War I. The night before he delivered his war message to the Congress, he told a newspaper editor, "Once lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street."
Wilson proved prophetic. The country descended into a frenzy of assaults on internal "enemies" that killed the promising reform movements of the prewar years. Two decades after this "war to end all wars," the world plunged into World War II.
The lessons are plain. It is imperative that we resist any rush to revenge for the atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is imperative that we give ourselves a decent opportunity to interpret the news blasted upon us.
Meditating on the nationalistic hatreds and tragic violence of World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote in a poem called "The Second Coming":
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
People must trust their democratic and humane convictions to prevail against the murderous passions that motivated the attacks of Sept. 11. To think carelessly of war is to risk squandering the promise of the new century.
Eugene E. Leach is a professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.; his parents are Pearl Harbor survivors.