Flag days

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Sep 06, 2002 12:00 AM
The local Home Depot is well-stocked with American flags of various sizes, along with flagpoles and flag holders. That was not the case last fall. Like many Americans, my wife and I wanted to put out a flag after September 11. But it took me a while to find a flag holder, because all the stores had been cleaned out of patriotic paraphernalia. Since carrying through on the urge to display the flag required a certain amount of persistence, it clearly was not a fleeting impulse. But neither was it something we thought about deeply; it seemed a natural expression of solidarity. So I was surprised by the mixture of bewilderment and scorn I sensed from out-of-town visitors that November. "What's with the flag?" said one. At the same time, I had a similar reaction to people who seemed to be going overboard in expressing their love of country. It was as if they were trying to outdo each other with their electrical displays, multiple bumper stickers, and little flapping flags that made their cars look like they'd gotten separated from the rest of the presidential motorcade. As the weeks went by, I started to wonder how long our flag should stay up. Some of our neighbors seemed determined to leave theirs out until the war on terrorism was over, and it wasn't clear to me that it ever would be. Then there was the question of what to do on Independence Day: take the flag down? But my discomfort with excessive flag waving was a mere quibble compared to the position taken by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. "My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window," she wrote shortly after the twin towers fell. "Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war." In "Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism," William Bennett cites Pollitt's response to her daughter's suggestion as an example of leftish contempt for patriotism. This antipathy was so strong, he suggests, that it could overwhelm the feelings of shock, sadness, sympathy, anger and defiance aroused by 9/11. Bennett, a former drug czar and education secretary turned professional moralist, has a point. It's obtuse to insist that flying the flag means endorsing everything the U.S. government has ever done. If a Catholic can wear a crucifix without expressing support for the Inquisition and the Crusades, an American can put up a flag without justifying "jingoism and vengeance and war." In both cases, the person displaying the symbol has in mind particular values, some of which Katha Pollitt surely shares. To many of us, the flag represents liberty, tolerance and the rule of law, the principles on which the nation was founded but which its government has not always honored. Still, it's no use pretending that flag waving has never been associated with the kind of unreflective patriotism that assumes nothing done in America's name could be wrong. Because of this connection, I must admit that at a certain point I started to worry that continuing to display our flag might be interpreted as support for whatever the Bush administration decided to do in the name of fighting terrorism. Bennett himself reinforces that equation in his book, which blurs the distinction between suspicion of government and hatred of America. He is impatient with skeptics generally, not just the ones who cringe at the idea of flying the flag. Bennett concedes that some anti-terrorist measures represent "compromises with our sound liberal traditions," and he says they "continue to be a matter of lively public debate in which all are invited to join." Yet he faults critics of President Bush's order authorizing military tribunals for accused terrorists, saying they caused "turmoil," contributing to "the erosion of moral clarity" and "the spread of indifference and confusion." Bennett thus echoes Attorney General John Ashcroft's attack on "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty." For Bennett, the problem is not the threat to civil liberties posed by overzealous prosecution of the war on terrorism. It is the threat posed to the war by "mounting concerns about civil liberties," which he pairs with military casualties as an obstacle to "domestic consensus." So Bennett's position is clear: He's all for "lively public debate" -- as long as it doesn't disturb the consensus.