If it is true, as so many pundits rushed to tell us after the events of September 11, 2001, that everything is different, all is changed, and nothing will ever again be the same, then it follows that the study of history is unlikely to provide any guidance as we navigate our suddenly more uncertain future. But, of course, it is not true. The essential structure of contemporary international politics has not changed, and neither has human nature. That said, there are more and less intelligent ways to engage historical knowledge in service to the present.
The historical analogy most commonly heard after September 1--between the attacks of that sad day and the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor--is worse than useless. It is not just superficial but misleading. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise first blow in what the Japanese government knew would be a conventional war about power and territory. It was informed not at all by the strategy of terrorism, a strategy in which the weak attempt to goad their target into counterproductive reaction. The only thing that the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have in common is that both were directed against the United States.
There is another historical analogy, however, of far greater utility, as long as in using it we know the history cited well and, even more important, that we value differences as well as similarities between past and present circumstances. After all, knowledge of history can never tell us exactly what to think or do in a given situation, it only offers a richer reservoir of possibilities to think about. That more useful analogy is to the events of June-July 1914, the beginning of the Great War.