In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.
Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.
Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.
The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.
The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.
What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.
One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.
But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”