A sign of peace?
September 22, 2001
I put on my peace sign today, winning the instant wrath of the most ardent of flag-wavers. No
symbol so marks opposition to the blood lust in America so effectively. The assault on the
World Trade Center has left us all deeply wounded, but in different ways. Some seek to use the
assault to heal older wounds and support their own worldviews.
Our loss in Vietnam left a deep hole in our consciousness, a far more serious vacancy than the
World Trade Center catastrophe, and one which has sent us spinning into a cycle of macho
bravado we still struggle to contain.
Many American males like to be tough; a self-perception hatched from movie heroes like John
Wayne and Clint Eastwood in that part of the world outside of the cities, divorced from the
urban gang self-perception most whites can't easily adopt. I drive through Secaucus and into the
heartland of New Jersey and I find cowboy after cowboy riding roughshod in pickup trucks and
SUVs, impressing the neighborhood girls with their brute force.
Freud would have a field day with this pattern of behavior and could easily trace it back to our
inadequacy sexually. For these people, the flag does not represent a system of laws or rights
protected under the constitution, but rather the stars and stripes seem to protect their privilege,
their right to violate whatever law they please and to intimidate anyone weaker than they are.
The 1960s humiliated these people, mocking their foolish macho and making them out to be
buffoons and other comic characters.
Such cowboy mentalities, of course, never ceased. But they seemed a less attractive option for a
while as the concept of cool moved onto other personality traits. The social world during the
1960s and early 1970s simply refused to accept that form of behavior as anything other than
Then in 1975, we ran from Vietnam, and the images -- like those of the crumbling World Trade
Center -- stuck in our psyche, an insult that many Americans could not easily tolerate without
trying to strike back somehow. It is not merely coincidental that Ronald Reagan's popularity
began to grow that year, giving him the impetus to nearly steal the presidential nomination from
Gerald Ford a year later, and the power to defeat Jimmy Carter four years after that.
Ronald Reagan fed the fury inside each of us and supported every anti-communistic dictator he
could find, leaving America to suffer through the consequences when he finally left office in
1989, leaving us to fight these very people he once called "Freedom fighters" in Iraq and other
parts of the world -- some of whom managed to turn the World Trade Center to powder.
In some way, our attackers seemed to understand the fundamental flaw in the American male, this
need to feel strong, to be all powerful, to construct the tallest buildings as if they somehow
echoed the size and shape of our sexual prowess.
The deflating of the World Trade Center meant more to the macho males -- who most likely
never even set foot in the building -- than to those who worked their daily. The destruction of
those towers was a symbolic act that not merely killed 6,000 people, but murdered the myth of
macho by which America thrives. And for those of us attached most strongly to that myth, the
only way to win that status back is to kill people, the way we killed 160,000 people in the
Persian Gulf War.
And that's why I'm wearing my peace sign, and that's why so many people glare at me.