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Osama's Death and the Collective Expectations of Patriotism

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Message Jason Del Gandio

President Obama's May 1st announcement that Osama bin Laden was killed by a Navy Seal operation sparked a sudden wave of patriotism across the country.  This is to be expected.  It has taken almost ten years, two wars, hundreds of billions of dollars, and all kinds of draconian laws to locate and kill the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Despite this expectation, I find it all very perplexing, even alienating.

The news of bin Laden's death is of course positive.  Everyone can agree that he was a megalomaniac driven by a distorted fundamentalism that wreaked havoc on many populations (U.S. or others).  The world is thus a better place without him.  The feelings of relief and the tears of emotion are also understandable.  Many people experience 9/11 as a psychic scar, having lost brothers, sisters, children, friends, coworkers, and lifelong romantic partners.  Hopefully such people can experience a sense of closure much like the family members of a murder victim.  But I am confused as to how this flood of emotion translates into patriotic fervor.   Pockets of people were compelled to gather in the streets, light fireworks, swing their shirts in the air, and chant "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" as if they were attending a sporting event.  Even Obama used a sports analogy a few days later.  In explaining why he will not release photos of Osama's dead body, he stated "We don't trot this stuff out as trophies . . . We don't need to spike the football."  

Although Obama's rhetorical approach is markedly different than his predecessor, the whole scene is very reminiscent of the Bush years.   Post-9/11 America was overtaken by a hyper-patriotic "you're either with us or with the terrorists" sentiment.  Any questioning of the government, the wars, or of "U.S. benevolence" was met with aggression, anger, and attack.  To question America was to "hate America."  I assume that many centrists and left-of-center citizens would blame such intense, unreflective nationalism on the Bush administration.  But Bush is no longer president.  So what's motivating the current fervor?

First, people want to deeply believe that they live in the greatest country in the world and that America can do no wrong.  This is a wonderful myth to believe in, but I don't think it is very accurate.  Read A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Year 501, the Conquest Continues by Noam Chomsky, and Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.  Also take a long, deep look into U.S. foreign affairs, both past and present.  Most people are unaware of or do not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of such narratives.  While there is no absolutely correct interpretation of "America," differing depictions can be deemed more and less honest and accurate.  Not only is the common story of "America the benevolent" dishonest and inaccurate, it is also dangerous.  It perpetuates an acceptance rather than critique of the status quo and thus enables government, military, and corporate elites to operate under a cloak of righteousness.

And second, there is an underlying cultural pretext that compels people to not simply express but to exert their patriotism.  Many (but surely not all) people unreflectively assume that they are supposed to chant U.S.A. in this moment.  The symbol of 9/11 terror has been apprehended and disposed of.  What is the proper response on the part of the average citizen? Public displays of national pride.  Why?  Because we were right and they were wrong.  Because it demonstrates our national unity.  Because he killed some of ours and now we have killed him.  Because it's an issue of national defense.  Because it is a sign that we are winning.   Because we have put so much blood and sweat into this moment.   Because, well, it is simply the right thing to do.  Each one of these lines can and should be investigated, broke open, and discussed.  But of course that does not happen.  Instead, it is a blanket of expectations that go unquestioned. 

Such collective expectations occur all the time.  For instance, during the high school years, many teenagers behave in particular ways not because they consciously want to, but because they suspect that they are supposed to.  I am definitely guilty of such behavior.  I publicly performed the hyper-masculine, tough-guy jock not because I genuinely enjoyed it, but because I thought that that is how "a man" is supposed to act.  The same can be said for my teenage excursions into alcohol.  Drink a couple of beers and then act silly and obnoxious.  Isn't that how drunk people are supposed to act?  Such a public performance brought me rewards of attention and social status, which is exactly why I did it.  I believe that similar processes are at work in the current wave of nationalism.  "Oh, we killed Osama . . . [thinking, pondering, looking around] . . . U.S.A.! U.S.A.!   Don't mess with America!  These colors don't run!  Justice has been served!  Spike the football!"  This behavior is then rewarded with news coverage and the applause and adulation of mass media commentators, which is the highest register of attention and social status.  

But in this moment of unreflective chanting, is anyone going to stand up announce how proud they are that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in both Afghanistan and Iraq?  That we have over 700 military bases worldwide?  That we spend well over $600 billion a year on military defense but squabble over healthcare, Planned Parenthood, education, and social services?  That we have over the last 30 or more years supported many of the North African dictators that are now being toppled?  That Osama bin Laden was part of the Afghanistan Mujahedeen, which the C.I.A. trained in the 1980s as a defense against the Soviet Union?  The list could go on and on, but the point is obvious: there are plenty of actions and choices that are more worthy of condemnation than pride.

Patriotism tends to be very selective, and because of that, very dangerous.  I am glad that Osama bin Laden is dead.  That may not sound very ethical or pacifist, but I'm not shedding any tears over his loss.  At the same time, I have no impulse to run around with my shirt off, shouting patriotic slogans.  I came to the conclusion many years ago that there is no inherent need to follow crowds or accept collective expectations of behavior.  I wish more people would stop, think about, and reflect upon their perceived need to display their love of country.  And it's not just about the motivation for, but also the utility of, that patriotism.  Does such audacious behavior make this a better country to live in?  Does it serve any higher purpose other than self-aggrandizement?  Does it enable us to be better people?  Does it provide a model for democratic citizenship and social justice?  Does it honor the spirits of those who died on 9/11?


Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. Visit his website for more information:
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Jason Del Gandio is a writer, thinker, activist, and teacher dedicated to local and global justice. His first book, "Rhetoric for Radicals: a Handbook for 21st Century Activists," was released in November, 2008 (New Society Publishers). Jason is (more...)
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