"That's one angry eagle." I told my wife. And it was certainly a pissed off eagle that was perched next to those proud words.
My thoughts raced back in that instant to that brisk, sunny September morning at the beach in 2001. The day had been decidedly devoid of television, newspapers, and any of the other paraphernalia of I obsessed on every day at home. As we sauntered into the breakfast cafe, determined to unwind and without a care in the world, we noticed, without much interest, that there was a crowd around the television. "So what?" I said out loud, "Probably some sports nonsense."
We had followed the waitress, sat down, and asked what all of the fuss was about. The people were now packed about 5 or 6 deep in front of the set, and I had to know. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center." she told us.
A group came in and sat at the table opposite ours. They were talking about the plane crash as an attack. I listened as closely as I could. They were saying something about the Mideast. I broke off from listening and offered up my own typically too loud commentary. "It's not like we haven't been asking for it!" I had said into the void between the conversations around us. "What do we expect?" I remember saying, oblivious to any political correctness, mindless of the consequences of open dissent with our nation and government.
No one challenged me, though. I wouldn't have expected any open challenge that day. I had grown up rebelling against the 'greatest generation's' jingoistic reflexes to militarism that had been rattled by the contradictions to their democracy in our government's prosecution of the futile war in Vietnam.
We left the cafe that day, and I swear, I was determined to just head to the beach. I spend my free time enmeshed in politics like an insane man. In 2001 I was recovering from the shock of Bush's ascendance to office. I needed to disconnect. I needed to pull myself away from the inane spectacle of our new Executive and his clown-dancing.
But, at that last moment, I decided to go back to the hotel room and turn on the television. It was there that I saw the second plane hit the second tower. I was crushed. We watched, listened, mourned, anguished. We crumbled to the floor in utter amazement and incredible grief as the towers improbably collapsed onto the rescuers, citizens, the streets below, and those inside.
We eventually pulled away from the carnage and destruction on the television, several hours later, and went to the boardwalk. To say that the crowd there was subdued would be an understatement. There was a silence among the vacationers that mirrored my own as my head buzzed with the horror and implications of the events. I could hear the snippets of conversations of shock and anxiety. I wondered about the possibility of other attacks. The Pentagon had had an explosion there that was attributed to a plane crash. I wondered, I guess unreasonably, about the possibility of an attack on the beach town. I imagined a cordon around the state. I felt under siege by a faceless enemy. I decided to look for a shirt with an American flag on it. I wanted to show my support for my country, my countryfolk.
I found two shirts with a small American flag on the front underneath of the words, Ocean City. I put one right on and felt an immediate affinity with folks who I would normally dismiss for their own nationalist displays of Americanism. I never would have considered actually wearing a flag in any prominent place before, except maybe on a rump patch in my freak years. But, I felt proud to wear mine as I continued my vacation. All of the flags in town were already sold. I was proud to have mine to connect with my fellow Americans around me.
When I returned home, I put a flag on my lamp post for everyone to feel. There weren't many houses without one. There weren't many cars without some sort of flag displayed on their window, bumper, or radio aerial.
The first thing I noticed on my return to the ocean town was that the flags had not been withdrawn. If anything, there were even more flags than there were in the town that sad week, years ago. The ocean town is a bit of a southern place, peppered with the southern conservatism that comes with most rural existence filled with farming, hunting, and Baptist religiosity. It was a sparse 15 years ago that I stopped fearing someone in that town spitting in the food I ordered and didn't have to fight to be seated in front of a restaurant away from the kitchen in the back. The discordant patterns of Americanism that were reflected there mirrored what I felt about my relationship with wider America. I was afraid of the racism that I felt lurked behind every cafe and storefront. I conjured my own demons and battled them more than any actual threat or affront.
From Vietnam to the Iraq invasion, to the latest militarism, these small towns have borne the brunt of the sacrifice in the percentage of their residents who serve in these contrived wars. There is a stoic wall of patriotic dogma that prevents outward displays of dissent against the missions of their precious hometown troops. It would seem the height of arrogance to face a member of these military families and babble on about the injustice of the effects of the force their loved ones are charged with prosecuting. It would, in fact, be a shame to expect these small towns to show anything less than pride in the actions of their kinfolk abroad.
There is a difference I noticed in that resort town from my last visit on 9-11. There has been a marked shift in the attitudes of Americans from anger and pride at the attacks to guarded fear and defensiveness. It still feels like solidarity, though, to want to share displays of our flags. There is an understanding and an acknowledgment in the continued displays, of the shared consequences of the course our nation took in the wake of that tragedy in New York. In the sentiment behind those continued displays is the belief that our nation will live up to the ideals and values expressed in those clean lines and in the sparkling stars that represent the contribution of our 50 states. In the sentiment behind those continued displays is the hope of a nation for some rationality and balance to our responses to those who would do our nation, interests, and allies harm. There is the hope that their government will decide to stop fighting and bring their precious soldiers home.
I know it's more than a little naive for me to suppose that our countryfolk could wake up and happen upon the horror of the continuing numbers of our nation's soldiers who are being killed daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, develop a nagging guilt over their own secret care, and haunt them into a lifetime of advocacy against war. It's harder still to take any solace at all in the amount of deaths that it would likely take to galvanize opposition against even the present mindless sacrifice of our soldiers by a zealous Bush as he squanders our nation's defenses waging his 'ideological struggle' against Iraqis.
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