GREAT NECK, N.Y. — Many thought-provoking parallels have percolated from the wingnuts who oppose the establishment of an Islamic community center and swimming pool on “hallowed ground” in lower Manhattan two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center (and just around the corner from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club, Thunder Lingerie, the Pussycat Lounge, 11 bars, 17 pizzerias and 18 banks crawling with what the New Testament calls “moneychangers”).
Newt Gingrich has compared this proposal, by an American citizen, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his wife Daisy, to draping a Nazi flag over the Holocaust Museum, or putting up a snack bar at the Gettysburg battlefield (although, besides those 17 pizza joints, Ground Zero also has a McDonald’s and a Burger King).
But the analogy that rang my chord came from Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post’s Bill Buckley disciple, who wrote that “the people of Japan today would not think of planting their flag at Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that no Japanese under the age of 85 has any possible responsibility for that infamy…”
Krauthammer measures this likelihood accurately, but I think such timidity over Pearl Harbor among the Japanese is unfortunate. More Japanese should visit Pearl, and they should have a place there — not to hang flags — but to make amends.
I think this because when I visited the Pearl Harbor memorial, I was accompanied — besides my wife, Junko — by my Japanese in-laws, Takaaki and Kiyoko (and Kiyoko’s infinitely amusing sister Yaeko).
The Pearl Harbor tour includes film footage of the Pearl Harbor attack, along with a multilingual narrative that describes the carnage wrought by this peacetime surprise. After the film, the tour proceeds to the USS Arizona memorial, where 1,177 U.S. sailors remain entombed. They were trapped below decks when, 11 minutes into the attack, a Japanese bomb penetrated the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, triggering an explosion that resounded miles away and sank the battleship almost instantly.
As we stood overlooking the rusted hull of the Arizona, Kiyoko began — for the third or fourth time — to weep. She said to Junko, “I had no idea.”
In Japan, the story of Pearl Harbor, perhaps understandably, avoids terms like “sneak attack.” It emphasizes the colossal might of the U.S. force defeated at Pearl (by the spunky little island-nation of Japan), and — as Kiyoko explained — never mentions the numbers of young Americans who were killed and wounded before they had a chance to shoot back, or lay hands on a weapon, or even get out of bed. Most Japanese who visit Pearl Harbor “had no idea.” Many, like Kiyoko, shed tears of shock and remorse.
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It’s not as though Junko’s mom, who’s now 83, has no experience with the horrors of war. On 7 August 1945, she was a Hiroshima schoolgirl required by the Empire to work in an aircraft factory on the city’s outskirts. After the atom bomb hit and panic swept Hiroshima, Kiyoko — unaware that any danger that might be contained in the rain of ash that fell steadily from the searing sky — did what came naturally. She walked “home” from the factory to her school dormitory, which was located a block or so from the smoldering moonscape that later came to be known as “Ground Zero.”
On that journey, of which Kiyoko rarely speaks — and when she does, simply calls it a “walk through Hell” — she passed hundreds of people blinded by the bomb, naked and staggering, their roasted flesh hanging in ribbons from their bodies and flapping in the hot wind. She passed fountains strewn with corpses where people, blackened by nuclear heat and desperate for water, had taken one drink and died of shock. She saw victims cut to shreds by flying glass, and she saw hundreds of bodies floating in the Ota River, where people had leapt for safety and boiled to death. When she returned to her dorm, all she found of her roomies were ashes and bits of bone.
And yet — having seen worse — Kiyoko wept over Pearl Harbor. She summoned no face-saving comparisons. She wept because she understood that the young men at Pearl, at leisure on a Sunday morning in Paradise, were as innocent as the thousands in Hiroshima who, 1,340 days later, served as atomic guinea pigs for the bomb whose makers called it “Little Boy.” Kiyoko wept because she understood the fateful bond between two moments and two bombs. Above all, she wept for the American families shattered, a half-century before, by the sudden, unjust loss of so many children who had carried their love and their aspirations. She wept a mother’s tears.
Like many Japanese, Kiyoko has had a number of faiths in her life, including, recently, Christianity. But that day, at Pearl Harbor, she would have welcomed a particular, familiar sort of refuge for her feelings.
Throughout Japan, in the heart of the city and deep in the countryside, there are small, unobtrusive Shinto shrines, some barely larger than a FotoMat booth. Recalling Kiyoko’s unconsoled grief for the long-lost sailors of the USS Arizona, it strikes me that one of those little shrines — perhaps just outside the visitor center — belongs there at Pearl Harbor. I can’t imagine that any American, even Gingrich or Krauthammer, would object to this shrine once they saw, kneeling there, a tiny old Japanese lady crying quietly and praying not only for the souls of the young men lost on that day of infamy, but also for her own nation’s atonement. A mother’s tears, no matter her religion, violate no one’s “hallowed ground.”
The absence of that little shrine at Pearl Harbor is not consecration by omission. It’s simply a deficit of grace, a failure to heal. Why fail again?
Why not, instead, offer Muslims a place — small, familiar and holy — right at New York’s Ground Zero (not two blocks away in a derelict Burlington Coat Factory), where they might seek solace for the feelings that rise from the great crime committed in the name of their faith? Like Kiyoko at Pearl Harbor, they wouldn’t come to gloat or wave flags. Like everyone else, they would be there to pray, to regret, to atone, to share in mourning the ruin of so many unfinished lives.