Column: Patriotism and a nation divided

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 9/21/2019 10:30:10 PM
Modified: 9/21/2019 10:30:09 PM

Among the American responses to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was the insistence that we not allow the terrorists to “win” by changing our way of life. “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where ... people don’t shop,” President George W. Bush said a couple of weeks after 9/11.

He was ridiculed, although he did have a point.

I’m afraid the terrorists have indeed won, but not by suppressing our consumerism. They won by igniting a form of retro patriotism, significantly populated by white nationalists, which led inexorably to the Donald Trump presidency.

My column was not scheduled for the week of Sept. 11 and perhaps that’s for the best. The solemnity of the 9/11 ceremonies and honoring of victims may not have been the best time for making this case.

My wife and I lived in Manhattan on 9/11. I will never forget the abject terror, the surreal nature of the day, the acrid smoke drifting through the streets, and the soot-covered, blank-faced survivors marching grimly north along our Upper West Side avenues.

But deep sorrow for victims and their families, and profound admiration of the heroism of many, does not preclude honest assessment of how that event twisted and distorted our national sensibilities and our place in the world.

I don’t write specifically to revisit the dishonest and costly invasion of Iraq or the never-ending futility of the war in Afghanistan. Those well-documented reflexive actions have taken hundreds of thousands of lives and cost trillions of dollars.

I believe the domestic response to 9/11 has been and continues to be even more damaging and dangerous.

Many Americans, perhaps most, cite unity in the aftermath of 9/11 as a stirring example of our nation at its best. In New York City on the days following the attack there was indeed a brief sense of common humanity. Flags appeared everywhere and people across lines of neighborhood, race and class seemed united by numb grief.

This moment in time bred a romantic notion of a nation united, but I saw the moment then and see it now as the first sign of a nation being deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided.

Within days, Sikh cab drivers displayed flag stickers to avoid beatings from white passengers. The anger at the terrorists rapidly generalized into anger at all difference. People of color and immigrants, particularly from Muslim countries, believed that they too could grieve and affirm their love of country. They soon enough found that they were not welcome at the funeral.

While not an entirely new phenomenon, the profligate display of the American flag, the booming of God Bless America at sports and entertainment events and ubiquitous Christian prayers in what are, or should be, secular spaces grew quickly into a nationalistic fetish.

American capacity for self-regard has never been modest, but it shifted into high gear after 9/11 and has not slowed down.

“Proud to be an American” bumper stickers abounded and, along with other conspicuous conformity, became simultaneous expressions of inclusion and exclusion. The very idea of patriotism was being redefined right in front of our eyes, particularly who got to be American and who did not.

Critics of this thesis will say, “But what about Obama? What about the advance in LGBTQ rights?” The questions are fair, but miss the point.

Barack Obama’s election further accelerated the redefinition of “American” and spawned the Tea Party. Trump’s election was a result primarily, if not entirely, of the self-righteous triumph of this new Americanism over a multicultural, more tolerant sector of the nation. Trump, the Tea Party and white nationalists are the equivalent of the Take Back Vermont movement some years ago. “Make America Great Again” really means “Take Back America From the Black President and His Anti-American Supporters.”

Make America Great Again is the direct descendent of the angry patriotism rising from the ashes of the twin towers. It is the “love it or leave it” of the 21st century.

Sept. 11 galvanized the forces that grew into backlash against racial progress, demeaning of immigrants for political gain, caging brown children at the border and re-segregating America’s schools and neighborhoods.

In the most virulent manifestation, some patriots are Taking Back America by gunning down gay folks in Orlando, Jews in Pittsburgh, Hispanics in El Paso and black boys in America’s streets — proving, as Oscar Wilde is said to have quipped, that “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”

But we are still shopping.

There is that.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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