Cowardly Patriotism

Last week, driving through Washington state, I saw this bumper sticker:
My first reaction was anger. I remember well how, following the 9/11 attacks, my country went insane with bloodlust. We wanted desperately to find someone, anyone, responsible and teach those monsters a lesson. We wanted to bomb their camps, invade their countries, obliterate every human being who was in any way involved with any organization that might have had something to do with this attack on America. And when rooting out the actual terrorists proved more difficult than we'd bargained for, and capturing the mastermind of the atrocity an elusive goal that was to prove, for more than a decade, unattainable, we found a different target, and rained down our fury on Iraq, a country that had had nothing at all to do with the attack, but did have a real jerk for a president.

Just to be clear: for all the empathy I may have felt for that reaction, I opposed it.

I was living in a community called the Peace House. There, I said the word: peace. Some of my housemates had long arrest records for civil disobedience, and had to keep their incomes below the poverty line to prevent the IRS from garnishing their wages due to years of anti-war tax resistance. These were serious peace activists. One member of our community, a grandmother with diabetes, spent more than a year in a federal penitentiary during this time for trespassing on the property of the School of the Americas (and yes, I'm aware that's a plotline in Orange Is the New Black). In the Peace House, and the wider peace community that met in our living room, there was unanimity on the need for a peaceful response to the attack. It wasn't a blind reaction: we had plenty of empathy for those who grieved, and we shared the horror of the moment; but we were also aware of the conditions in the Middle East that had created groups like al-Qaeda, and as horrific as the attacks on New York and Washington were, they were dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands who died as a result of the American reaction. Even if one can be callous about all those Iraqi and Afghani lives lost, the number of American casualties in this quagmire war long ago exceeded the number of victims on the 9/11 attack.

Taking that all into account, perhaps you can understand my anger at the simplistic knee-jerk blood lust of that bumper sticker with its Marine logo. Once I'd processed the anger, I went on to speculate on where that sticker came from. Perhaps the driver of the car--a middle-aged woman, I realized as our vehicle passed it--had lost a son or daughter in the war, and needed to justify that death to herself as essential to keeping America safe. Maybe she comes from a military family that has always assumed responsibility for the protection of America. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt on this, but those words haunted me all week, until finally I googled an image of the bumper sticker and started writing.

Because it's wrong. The chaos nations that are Iraq and Afghanistan might well have wound up the way they are without American intervention, but it seems unlikely, and certainly the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died in the crossfire would not have suffered that fate. Iraq might even still be a united country where a variety of faith traditions and ethnicities live peacefully together. And all those American young people who were dismembered, traumatized, or killed would still be alive, contributing to the growth of the American economy. Then there's the sour turn American culture has taken since 9/11 which, it must be admitted, started in the previous decade, as Congress turned on President Clinton. But would it really be that bad?

Americans are an angry people these days. We drive aggressively, argue incessantly, seek out friends who are politically identical to ourselves. When we are wronged, be strike back, often before all the facts are in. We get our news from sources that are biased along our preferred lines, and when these sources say something patently absurd about those on the other side, we swallow it whole. When someone in that other camp makes a misstep--a slip of the lip, an inartful comment, a poorly timed remark--we leap on it, crowing at how all our worst opinions about this politician and whatever movement he or she is associated have been confirmed.

I look at that bumper sticker, and I see that very anger screaming from it. It's clearly on the hawk side of the war question: attack us, and there is only one right response, fighting back. It's not enough to state this, though; it has to go after everyone who disagrees, and call us cowards. I'm offended by this, because I know the issue is far more complicated, know that the cost of war-mongering has far exceeded whatever price was paid on 9/11, know that, if anything, we've created far more problems with our ships and missiles and drones and bombers and guns than existed before we lashed out. Much more than that, I know that choosing peace in the face of attack takes far more courage than striking back. It takes the courage of conviction, the courage of patience, nuance, diplomacy. It takes looking into the eyes of the ones who maimed us and saying, "I hear your anger. How can we make this stop without losing anymore lives?" There's nothing cowardly about that.

And yet, here's the other side of the coin: I understand where the warmongers are coming from. 9/11 felt like a personal attack. I was reeling for over a week, weeping at inopportune moments, afraid to listen to NPR because I didn't know what I'd hear next. My country had been attacked using its own infrastructure: passenger jets, with everyone on board, turned into guided missiles and used to destroy iconic buildings. There were other scares in the days that followed: anthrax in the mail, suitcase nukes, the rooting out of a conspiracy that had taken advantage of America's open borders and liberal attitude toward tourists. I felt no sympathy for the terrorists, believed that, however righteous their grievances, nothing justified the mass murder they had engaged in. I wanted my country safe.

And I understood the wave of young adults enlisting in the armed services. I wanted very much to volunteer in some way, myself. I applied to the conference to have myself reinstated as a minister, because I thought I could make a difference in a pulpit. I was ultimately turned away, a rejection that led me to the place where I do make a difference, the music classroom, but that is another story. My point is that everyone who felt this impact wanted to make a difference. Many did by putting their bodies in harm's way. Others did by opposing the use of military force, often putting their own bodies in a different kind of harm's way. Neither of these responses was cowardly.

And patriotism? I believe it was in both responses to the attack. Some loved their country enough to travel to a foreign land and fight. Others loved their country enough to hold it to a higher standard, to call again and again for a peaceful response. Most of us decided, one way or another, to be patriotic right where we were, living our lives as fully as we could, denying the terrorists the ultimate victory of turning us into a paranoid dictatorship.

At least, that's what I tell myself, and I can almost believe it. Until I see a bumper sticker calling me a coward.


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