“Probably no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both.” Abraham Flexner
I have not been much at peace of late, a fact which, not ironically, disturbs me. On May the second I drove through our little town early in the morning taking my son to school and was greeted by a display of American flags along California Street. I wondered what holiday it was, but quickly realized it wasn’t a holiday (a word derived from Holy Day, by the way); it was a celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death–or killing to be precise. And since that time I have been consumed by a deep and abiding consternation and a heavy heart.
The flags were not displayed at the request of any governmental body or official, but rather at the behest of one individual, acting solely on her own personal feeling and desire and who, as it happens, has the ear of the Booster’s Club. When I asked this person if she had asked for permission from the business owners before placing the flags, she quickly and decidedly told me “no.”
I am deeply disturbed by the flying of the flags on that particular day for two distinct, yet inextricably connected reasons, neither of which has anything to do whatsoever with “patriotism.” My concern is this: that a single individual could symbolically speak for the entire community by unilaterally decorating a public thoroughfare. A person may hang the flag at his or her home at any time, for any reason; that’s private property. But in this case, a personal point of view morphed into a public, collective voice; a voice that I, and many others, do not share.
Moreover, the flying of the flag on that day was not in celebration of the end of hostilities. It was not to honor service men and women, not even to honor the lives of those killed on September 11; in such case they would be flown on September 11, so that we might remember, and reflect. There was no reflection in flying these flags, just reaction; emotional, vengeful reaction. The flags were flown in a fist-pumping celebration of the killing of a human being.
The founders of our nation fought and struggled and debated long and hard to create this exemplary, fragile democracy that we all appreciate and defend so vociferously. They fought not just so that we could fly the flag but in order to create an entirely new social system: a system that respects the rights of the individual against the tyranny of a single person or collective. They created a document that supports a democratic process. And they fought with honor and dignity; no less than George Washington himself issued an order that any man found to have humiliated, tortured or mistreated a prisoner of war would be severely punished as an example to the rest of the army.
Which leads me to a much larger question, more troublesome and profound: Is it right to celebrate the murder of a human being, even if that person is your enemy? I question what spiritual or religious foundation there might be for such an attitude. I wonder, unhappily, at the absence of a sense of human decency, of a simple maturity of character. I wonder what happened to the idea of justice that the United States used to champion: of bringing war criminals to trial for their crimes, not shooting them–unarmed, in the face. I wonder if we are not succumbing to the habits of Imperial Rome, where assassinations of the enemy were commonplace, their severed heads paraded on poles through the streets to wild cheers. I do not wonder alone.
Jonathan Zimmerman, NYU professor and author recently wrote: “By celebrating death, even of someone as evil as bin Laden, we let our worst impulses trump what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. We look petty, juvenile and small.” And this is worrisome. Worrisome because violence begets violence.
The ultimate weakness of violence is
that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate:
only love can do that.
That quote is from Dr. King, who perhaps was inspired by the apostle Paul, himself a convert from violence, who stated: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. ” (1 John 2:9)
In my last column I said that it is important to ask the right questions to get the right answers. The question here is not one of patriotism; a person does not need to fly the flag to be a patriot. “Patriotism,” is a red herring, leading away from the real and more salient issues of proper boundaries (both personal and global), mutual respect and, above all, whether we choose to be guided by hatred or by love.
What Albert Einstein called a “deplorable love-of-country stance” is what takes us into war. It separates, violates, and seeks to dominate. Witness Greece, Rome, Germany, Japan…and the U.S. “You will never have a quiet world,” George Bernard Shaw said, “until you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”
We are, when all is said and done, a single, human race trying to co-exist on a tiny blue sphere suspended in the heavens, and our smallness, our “us and them” attitude is threatening to kill us all. Patriotism, jingoism, and nationalism have no place on a small, heavily populated planet. If we are to find peace in our world, if we are to survive at all, we must rise above such such small-mindedness, rise above the darkness, to a level that spiritual traditions have been pointing to for centuries. We must embrace our commonalities and not our differences. We must recognize our fear, and rather than defending it with hatred and violence, seek understanding and love. We must, must recognize our oneness.
This is why I was dismayed that Monday morning; this is why I do not wish for a single person to speak for me in chauvinistic displays of the flag. This is why I wrote the mayor and the city council and why I write this column every month. I try, in my own small way, to speak for the angels of our better nature, to speak for peace instead of war, to speak for cooperation rather than violence and retribution, to speak for the recognition that there is no “us” or “them”: there is only US, without the periods.