How Did We Get Here?

The Dark Side of Patriotism in a Post 9/11 America

Like most Americans over the age of 30, I remember precisely where I was when I heard that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. Working as a nanny near downtown Milwaukee, WI, I had just dropped my charge off at her school and was heading back to the house when I flipped on the radio and heard the oddly dire voice of my favorite local DJ. As soon as I reached the house, I turned on the T.V. and watched as the unimaginable unfolded before my very eyes.

In those first few days of aftermath, when nary a plane was to be seen in the sky, what I remember most was the outpouring of patriotism. Particularly, I remember driving down the main freeway along the lake, and seeing a large group of people gathered on a freeway overpass. They had draped a large American flag over the side of the overpass, and were waving it in their lights to the people in cars passing beneath them. They probably held some signs saying something akin to “We shall overcome,” but it’s the flag that I remember, as well as the way my eyes filled up with tears; so full of emotion at the gesture. It was beautiful the way the people of our country came together during that time.

I’ll never forget the first Fourth of July parade I attended after the attack. The way the people stood and cheered for every passing group of policemen or firefighters; again, my eyes brimmed with tears. Our flag seemed to carry more meaning for a time; the people who kept us safe had more respect than, perhaps, ever in our country’s history. This was patriotism at its finest; when it unites people, and the pride in our country causes us to take better care of it. Alas, how quickly we forget.

Unfortunately, patriotism isn’t always just about displaying your flag, respecting our first responders and veterans, and having the kind of pride in your country that inspires people to take care of what we have, as well as to work to make it an even better place. Pride, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. There is a long road in patriotism, and once you go past the crossroads, it becomes a sketchy neighborhood, indeed.

“There is a long road in patriotism, and once you go past the crossroads, it becomes a sketchy neighborhood, indeed.”

Patriotism goes too far when it creates an “us vs. them” mentality. Even in those early days, after the towers fell, there were examples of this behavior; the people who were angry, and who wanted to hunt down and destroy those who would dare to harm our great country. Conversely, the wisest among us were asking the real question that needed to be asked: Why would people want to harm our country, and what can we do to make our country a place that is esteemed, both by its citizens and the greater, worldwide community?

The flames of this extreme style of patriotism have been fanned for political purposes ever since those towers fell, creating a polarized version of our country that I can barely recognize or fathom; dividing us into the “true Americans who really love our country” and the “socialist, communist, left-wing, liberal, un-patriotic, gun-fearing, non-Christian idealists who obviously don’t really love our country.” This is patriotism at its worst; the kind that allows a man like Donald Trump to rise into power in an eerily similar way that Hitler did in Nazi Germany.

Allow me to present an example of how this is working, on a smaller scale. Let us pretend there is a very small community; a pretty little street with a row of pretty little houses. Now, let us pretend that one of the homeowners was extremely proud of his little house; so proud, that he needed his house to be better than everyone else’s on the street. In his quest to make his house the best, he used all the community’s resources — the water and seeds to make his yard beautiful and bountiful; the materials to make his home sturdier and more impressive; the people power to satisfy the labor required to make his home the better of all his neighbors.

Eventually, the other homes on the street would start to look shabby. Eventually, the proud homeowner would develop an air of superiority over his neighbors. Perhaps he would say to them, condescendingly, “Do you see how I’ve made my house so grand? I know something you do not. Allow me to be in charge, and I can make your houses grand, too.”

Now, some of the homeowners are bound to believe him — especially when he gave passionate speeches, reminding them of when the whole community was pretty, once. He would encourage their anger, and encourage them to make their community great again by getting rid of anyone who stood in their way. They, of course, had forgotten that the proud homeowner was the one who had taken what had been theirs, to begin with. There would be some homeowners, though, who had not forgotten. There would be some who understood that the proud homeowner had no intention of sharing the resources he’d gained, but had actually found a way that he could keep them.

You see, the angry homeowners were so blind in their anger; so united in their love of what their community was; so determined to do whatever it took to get it back, that when the other homeowners tried to remind them of what the proud homeowner had done, they accused them of standing in the way! They saw the other homeowners not as fellow members of their community, but as outsiders who were against their cause. The proud homeowner encouraged this feeling; he went so far as to accuse the other homeowners for the downfall of their community, and worse. He accused them of wanting what the homeowners had, creating fear as well as anger. The homeowners would become so enraged and afraid, they’d run the other homeowners out of town; the homes they left behind would be divided among them, making their homes, seemingly, better (though still not as good as the proud homeowner’s, of course). They would be satisfied. For a time.

Our country has been divided in just this way; however, there is a new dynamic that is occurring. The divide has become such an enormous space, some people are falling into the middle. From the middle, they have a clear view of either side of the divide, and they no longer feel that they are a part of either of the sides. They are beginning to see that it takes everyone to make the community great again; and that we need to look for what brings us together, not what divides us, in order to make it happen. Most importantly, they are beginning to understand the trick that has been played on them by the proud homeowners, and the way that anger and fear can make us blind to what we really need do to make things right.

Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the dynamics of our upcoming election. On one side, we have Trump (an obvious proud homeowner); on the other, Hillary Clinton (perhaps not as obvious, at first, but a proud homeowner, make no mistake). The more Trump stirs up fear and anger, the more people distance themselves from the Republican Party. Similarly, the more Clinton pushes Democrats to unite behind her to save ourselves from Trump (while behaving as if she has the Presidency locked in and engaging in very questionable methods to ensure her win), the more people she alienates from the Democratic Party.

Those alienated people in the middle have a clearer view. They see (or are beginning to see) that both sides are playing the same game, and they’re mad — after all, nobody likes to be tricked. Democrats and Republicans are leaving their parties in record numbers to become independents, and they’re planning to take back what was theirs; not only that, they want to give back what was stolen — or never given — to others, and just in time. It’s past time to rebuild our communities, from the smallest to the largest, in a way that helps us all.

This is not a dream. This is not impossible. We only need to focus on what brings us together. It’s time.

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