I know a lot of people for whom the word “patriotism” is polarizing. They either love it or they hate it, but both sides have the same images that come to mind: The American flag flying over a scene of devastation, police and military carrying the flag into conflict, America charging in to save the world, the federal government, 4th of July parades, fallen and injured military and police heroes. For the side that loves patriotism, these are glorious images, scenes that bring thoughts of apple pie and security and justice. For the side that hates patriotism, these scenes bring thoughts of fear, thoughts of police states and American imperialism, racism and jingoism.
I think of patriotism as something different, and my memories surrounding the events of 9/11 provide an example. I see patriotism as meaning a great, extended family, one we love, hug, and protect. All families have black sheep and skeletons in the closet. All families have members they might be embarrassed or ashamed of. That doesn’t stop them from being family.
On 9/11, I saw America suffer an enormous psychological shock. We went from seeing terrorist attacks as something that happened to other people, to seeing them happen on our doorstep. In a way, we were like a healthy, athletic family, who suddenly loses a family member to cancer. It was nothing we could prevent, it was nothing extraordinarily likely to happen again, but it was really bad, and suddenly it was happening to us, not just others.
Like many people who suffer personal tragedy, America let that shock lead to some unfortunate consequences. I remember that trick-or-treating nearly went extinct that year, as people let grief, fear and suspicion drive them inside their homes. I took my triplets around, wearing costumes and carrying buckets for the first time ever…and we were the only ones out. Very few people had their porch lights on, and those who did seemed surprised and unprepared for trick-or-treaters. It was nothing like Halloween 2000, when we ran out of candy three times and I actually put little mouse ears on the triplets and took them door-to-door just to collect candy so we could hand it out again. Halloween 2001 was like living in a world that had lost the ability to play.
The biggest thing that stands out from 9/11 for me, though, is what happened that day, that night, and for a few weeks after. America really came together as a family. We hugged, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, everybody we could see. Those close to the destruction dug in and helped with the aftermath, and those farther away looked for ways to send help. We flew flags, not out of ferocious pride but out of grieving pride, spiteful pride perhaps, to say that our family was strong enough to withstand this blow. Like singing Amazing Grace at a funeral, we sang our national anthem and other patriotic songs, finding meaning and release in the well-known tunes and words.
It was a brief island of unity in a sea of division. Ever since those few brief days, we have gone back to bickering and fighting. Democrats versus Republicans, statists versus libertarians, whites versus blacks, Christians versus Muslims…you name it, there’s a dividing line near it that people are fighting over. We forget what we have in common, and like the bickering family at the Thanksgiving dinner table we lose our common identity in our race to tear each other down.
But once, we remembered. Once, we came together and embraced what we shared. To me, that is what patriotism means. That is what I think when I see the flag and hear our national anthem. Maybe one day we’ll find it again, without needing a tragedy as a reminder.