Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.
— Emma Goldman, “Patriotism: a Menace to Liberty,” Anarchism and Other Essays
After the events of September 11, 2001, after the planes dove from the sky like predatory birds and exploded two gleaming symbols of capitalism, after Lower Manhattan was blanketed in ash as from an unseasonable snow, after office workers plunged from high windows, and police and fireman were buried beneath collapsed towers, and sparrows were incinerated in flight, many people across this country began to display the American flag. Hung from apartment windows, on front porches of suburban homes, sported on tee shirts and baseball caps and on the lapels of business suits, emblazoned on billboards and in newspaper ads for Ford dealers and stuffed crust pizza, the red, white and blue was everywhere.
Suddenly, patriotism was “what’s hot,” after being “what’s not” for decades. Perhaps since the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or the HUAC investigations of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Since the televised images of civil rights marchers attacked by dogs and high pressure hoses. Or the news photos of body bags shipped home from Vietnam. But such disavowals were suddenly so yesterday. The flag was once more in fashion.
Humans have been using flags for over 4000 years. The earliest known flags were called vexilloids, constructed of metal or wooden poles with carvings on top. Perhaps 2000 years ago, pieces of fabric were added to some vexilloids for decoration; eventually cloth became the preferred material. Flags were borne into battle so that troops could distinguish friend from foe, enabling one to decide whom to shoot and whom to spare. At one time flags were hand sewn from natural fibers—wool, linen, cotton, silk—but are now more likely to be mass produced, printed in bulk on synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Away from the battlefield, the flag is a symbol of patriotism, asserting that the nation itself in some way embodies a moral standard or value.
I was in Spain with friends on that fateful Tuesday morning in September 2001, although in Barcelona it was already afternoon. We’d arrived only the day before, and I’d been fussy and inconsolable all morning. My friends and I were riding a city bus when a young man seated behind us tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You are Americans?” I didn’t ask him how he’d guessed. “Do you know what’s happened?” He was listening to a Walkman, taking in the information as he almost simultaneously relayed it to us. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Wait, they think another has gone into the Pentagon? They’re not sure.” The story was still unfolding; the news media were scrambling, knowing nothing for certain yet. We hurried back to our hotel while another plane crashed into Tower 2. We tuned to CNN; they were replaying the second New York attack by then, but we watched live feed as first the one tower, then the next began to crumble, as the cameraman wrestled with competing impulses to capture footage of the unimaginable disintegration or to run like hell to save his life.
The flag of Spain depicts three horizontal bands of red (top), yellow (double width), and red with the national coat of arms on the hoist side of the yellow band; the coat of arms includes the royal seal framed by the Pillars of Hercules.
I was touched by the sympathy my friends and I received from the Spaniards we encountered, from the clerk at our hotel who said, “I’m so sorry,” to the news vendor who sold me a copy of the Mirror when I was desperate to read an English-language account of the attacks. Even the ticketing agent at Air France (we were stranded at the Paris airport due to cancelled flights) responded compassionately to our pleas that she find us a flight home. It appeared that the people of many countries were united with us against the horror of these acts. In the midst of this tragedy, I felt an opening, an opportunity, the possibility for something new, like the sudden awareness of a doorway one has never noticed before.
In the days that followed, the spin from our unelected President was that America had been attacked and “we” (whomever he believed he spoke for) would stop at nothing to defeat those who had declared war on us. Listening to his dogged, stubborn cadences, I was heartsick. Not only because of the television footage of two fiery crashes and the towers’ implosions that played over and over again. Not only because I’d once had lunch with one of the women on American Airlines Flight 11, which had crashed into Tower 1. Not only because my friends in Lower Manhattan were traumatized, displaced, and choking on toxic ash. And not even only because I knew that life in the United States would never again be quite what it had been before. I was heartsick because I saw that as a nation, in the declarations and actions of our leadership, we were refusing to walk through that just-opened portal into a new consciousness, were repudiating the opportunity to learn the lessons that might transform us and prevent a repetition of these events.
By the time my friends and I returned home to Los Angeles, a cultural shift had already been effected. There was “us” and there was “them.” We were good and they were evil. To dispute this characterization was to risk being cast on the side of “them,” whose fate was avowed to be annihilation. To suggest that—while no one would condone the act of hijacking a plane and its passengers and using it as a bomb to blow up an office building full of workers—people might have legitimate grievances against the United States that, too long ignored, might fester into acts of violent desperation was depicted as the height of apostasy. To raise the possibility that making a serious commitment to redress their complaints would go further toward preventing another incident of this kind was depicted as nothing short of treason.
A publication by the U.S House of Representatives from 1977 explains the symbolism of our flag in this way: “The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.” In the autumn of 2001, waving an American flag was meant to signal that one was on the side of righteousness. As if those solar rays could dazzle us blind to our own part in this global drama.
A few progressives chose to display instead an earth flag, our planet spinning blue against a rainbow background, an assertion that we—all peoples, all nations—are in this together. This unpopular sentiment was submersed in the tide of reflexive patriotism that swept the country. I saw cars sporting multiple magnetic flags, as if quantity were the true measure of loyalty. Stuck behind a slow-moving SUV with flags fluttering from every window, I quipped to a friend, “You just know he’s going to be a bad driver with that many flags on his car!” I developed a special fondness for those wags who, months now after playoff season, had retrieved their gold and purple Lakers pennants and let them stream from their car windows. “Go Lakers” made more sense to me in this circumstance than “Go America.”
The flag of Saudi Arabia is green, a traditional color in Islamic flags, with the Shahada or Muslim creed in large white Arabic script (translated as “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God”) above a white horizontal saber (the tip points to the hoist side.) It was learned that seventeen of the nineteen men involved in the hijackings on September 11 held Saudi passports.
Less than thirty days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States was bombing Afghanistan, backed by an alliance of primarily European states. The current flag of Afghanistan has three equal vertical bands of black, red, and green, with a gold emblem centered on the red band; the emblem features a temple-like structure encircled by a wreath on the left and right. Like the Saudi flag, it also contains the Shahada. This flag was adopted in 2002 after the U.S. air war that toppled the Taliban, its ruling government. Documented civilian casualties from the first six months of the air war was 3400.
As a child I was taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, standing straight beside my desk at school, one hand pressed tightly over my heart. Morning after morning in my early elementary years, sheer repetition rendered just a blur of sound. We memorized, declaimed the syllables, but never talked about the meaning.
The Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy for an event sponsored by National Education Association. His original Pledge read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He’d wanted to include the word, ‘equality,’ but other members of his organization didn’t believe in equality for women and Negroes. In 1923 and 1924 the National Flag Conference, led by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the words, “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” In 1954, the Knights of Columbus persuaded Congress to add the words, “under God.” On June 25th, 2002, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is “unconstitutional” and cannot be recited in public schools because it contains the words “under God.” Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ruling based on an unrelated matter; the Court did not address the constitutionality of the Pledge.
At my high school graduation in 1972, the student body, all one thousand of us, refused to stand for the national anthem. Children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, we’d come of age in a time of questioning. We’d been taught that the right to question was an American value, one for which people had fought and died. We’d seen the red smears of then President Kennedy’s skull on the lap of Jackie’s tailored pink suit in Dallas, Martin Luther King’s brain matter seeping onto a balcony in Memphis. We’d seen Bobby Kennedy crumpled in the hallway of a grand hotel in Los Angeles. And the bodies of students shot by National Guardsmen on college campuses at Kent State and Jackson State. We’d seen the naked girlchild, skin aflame with napalm, running down a road in Vietnam. After such searing witness, had we not earned the right to question?
There are those in government who have seized upon the events of September 11, using this gruesome series of attacks as justification to detain and incarcerate hundreds or thousands of individuals—we do not know how many—in secret and without charge. The United States Congress approved the Patriot Act, which gives the government expanded power to invade citizens’ privacy, imprison people without due process, and punish dissent. In such times, we are told, one has no right to question.
On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, despite the fact that there was no evidence of a link between the events of September 11 and that sovereign country. The flag of Iraq contains three equal horizontal bands of red, white, and black with three green five-pointed stars in a horizontal line centered in the white band. The phrase Allahu Akbar (God is Great) in green Arabic script—Allahu to the right of the middle star and Akbar to the left of the middle star—was added in January 1991 during the first Persian Gulf war. As of June 6, 2008, 4,404 Americans have been killed in the conflict, with at least 30,143 wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilians killed since the 2003 invasion range from 92,000 to over 900,000.
What is my flag? Red smears on a pink suit skirt. Stretched blistered skin of a naked, running girl. The blasted landscape of bombed out Afghanistan. The ruined library of Baghdad. Our blue planet wobbling in its fragile orbit.
And what is the flag of the silent dead of many nations who dwell beneath the dust and in the ash-laden air? Fissured map of the globe, beneath which lies an unbroken field of shimmering light.