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Visiting Honolulu and New York and remembering why we care

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Peaceable and pleasant circumstances coincidentally drew me, successively, to Honolulu and New York City in these past two weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Somewhere in between the surf of Waikiki and the lights of Broadway, it occurred to me that these remain the only two American cities to have been actually attacked—in both cases by cosmically terrifying air assaults—in the history of this nation.

It’s worth committing to memory this weekend.

(In no way does this marginalize the homicidal jetliner-missile strike on the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and the tragic end of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania or, for that matter, the British battering of Washington during the War of 1812 or the fiery Union invasion of Atlanta during the Civil War.)

Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are the brutal coordinates of modern and postmodern American valor and response; thousands of lives lost, men, women, children, uniformed and civilian, burned, blasted, vaporized, drowned—a ghastly number of last-resort suicides. Both attacks failed to subjugate America. Both cities, Honolulu and New York, are free and secure and they shine as world-class centers of commerce, culture, and leisure.

This is what we should be thinking about on Memorial Day. It’s not about the maddening sales culture that has replaced the nobility and sanctity of memory; it’s about the fact that we have the culture.

Amidst the glistening towers of Kapahulu Avenue and Bishop Street, my wife Audrey conducted business and seminars with colleagues and clients in Honolulu. She sped along Nimitz Highway, named for the World War II admiral who took command of our Pacific Fleet within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The sun set, like a glorious celestial ball, every evening along the southeast shore, from Pearl Harbor to Makapu'u Point. A forgiving breeze cooled the sightseers and merchants and streetwalkers; nobody was afraid and too many did not even know that fear had come screeching from the sky one morning and that almost 2400 people died terrible deaths in the paradise-turned-inferno.

My elder daughter Sari graduated the following week with a Master’s Degree from New York University. The glorious event, which sent forth several thousand new professionals in every imaginable category of science, education, and creativity, took place in the Gotham epicenter of Yankee Stadium.

Soul queen Aretha Franklin, preeminent relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan were among those awarded honorary doctorates. We arrived and returned on the clean and efficient subway system. We weren’t worried about anything except where to have a celebratory lunch afterwards. The city is heavily monitored by a state-of-the-art police force and it is seriously protected, blissfully crowded, alive, and confident.

It has its problems, to be sure: it is impossibly expensive, socially balkanized, and choking in traffic. And yet, it has never frolicked and strutted and entertained and educated like it does now—less than thirteen years after Islamic madmen tried to murder it.

What’s this got to do with Memorial Day? Everything. My wife hikes Diamondhead in between sales conferences only minutes from the watery tomb of the USS Arizona. My daughter throws a graduation party for her family and friends at a trendy eatery in the East Village—blocks from ground zero. The difference: the military forces of the United States of America, in concert with the resilient and irrepressible people of this country.

It’s worth committing to memory this weekend. And you can’t put a price on it.

www.benkamin.com

See my new book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers'

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