Today I learned that an oversized American flag suspended from a Hartford overpass was causing traffic delays as rubber-necking motorists contorted themselves to salute it, perhaps forgetting their duties as rush-hour drivers. There was a bottleneck, twisted metal and chaos.
It is not the first time symbols have wreaked havoc in the midst of heartfelt intention. Exerting a strange and sometimes dark influence on well-meaning people, they often end up surpassing their limited, appropriate, innocuous role, grabbing significance for themselves and impoverishing the meaning of what they represent.
I had learned the same lesson earlier this year in Israel, where one quickly finds out that vigorous flag-waving and the blare of sirens often go together. Watching a Yom Yerushalayim parade on the doorstep of the Old City, I couldn’t help but wonder if the symbolic celebration of an occupation wasn’t a perversion of the notion of solidarity.
I told my Israeli friend Pinchas I didn’t think there was ever a single, positive and inoffensive meaning of an emblematic act, and that if I was a member of the opposition against whom the wall of solidarity had been erected, the ostentatious sport of flag-waving would only incline me more to continue the cycle of violence.
He said, “But we feel we must celebrate.” The next morning there was a bomb in the lobby of the Sheraton where I was staying.
Am I less of an American because I would, solemnly and equably, place this crime in context rather than bellow my allegiances? Are you more of one because you waited in line for half an hour at a five-and-dime to purchase a rectangle of striped fabric, while I read an article about the history of American imperialism and the grievances it has engendered?
One cannot possibly say we should divest our symbols, but the trouble is that in a slippery world of simulacra we often forget what symbols mean, if they mean anything at all. Unfortunately, the sectarian nature of symbols, not less than the sectarianism of whatever or whomever enlists them, causes many problems in the world.
Why do we look with such equanimity on the “national pride” trumpeted by the loud proponents of therapeutic symbolism, when an airtight national consensus is hardly necessary, as perhaps it once was, to summon the belligerence necessary to quash our enemies? And especially when America, both as concept and as human community, is not at all what is at stake?
The tragedy of last Tuesday was not “an attack on America,” no matter how many networks employ that obnoxious hyperbole in their graphics. If the object of the terrorist world’s animosity is America, if a war is being waged against America, per se, then the perpetrators of these horrors have framed their hatred in a devilishly inaccurate way, and we should be the first to set them straight.
Terrorists are welcome to argue peacefully with our foreign policy, our government, and even our culture, but when they conflate a nation and its people with the bodiless values of civilization, the world finds itself stained with blood. People from 80 nations died in Tuesday’s catastrophe. These criminals have attacked the world, they have attacked civilization, and they have even attacked some of their own people.
We must, for the sake of pragmatism as well as ideological maturity, believe it is fundamentally the friction of values, not a buckshot hatred for a nation’s people, that inspires resentment amongst America’s critics. We ought to look there for a long-term solution — indeed, there is no other place to look.
What seems like solidarity emerging from adversity often leaves us unprepared to deal maturely with complex moral questions, which cannot be solved by lock step adherence to whatever ideal of unity our national symbols embody. It would be unforgivable to force this calamity into an America-versus-the-world paradigm by steeling our resolve only as Americans and not as protectors of a principle of universal rights.
The latter view might serenely merge our pain with that of people from many times and places, and cooperatively merge our resolve with others’. That would be a truly productive and inspiring outcome, much more so than a short-lived burst of ubiquity for “Old Glory.”
People may pay homage to the flag, but they are only calcifying allegiances and glorifying iconography itself, not ennobling a people or unifying a national soul. The career of Big Brother begins and ends with mind-numbing pageants of its symbols. As I learned at the Jerusalem Sheraton, so does the career of Big Brother’s brutal, determined, faceless enemy.
Even if I had a flag to fly, I would leave it in the closet. Perhaps if we thought more deeply about our real, intransient psychological needs, we could all do the same, avoiding traffic delays and the suspect violence of an auto-da-fe for patriotism.
We have a difficult war on our hands already. Let us not of our own volition enter a second, symbolic one.
Aaron Goode is a sophomore in Calhoun College.