October 2, 2001
The makeshift memorial to the Secaucus victims of the World Trade Center disaster was not
enough, that collection of hand-drawn signs, posters with the pictures of the missing, melted
candles, tattered American flags, and hundreds of flowers. Town officials decided to put up a
wall of American flags on either side of the highway bridge, to leave no doubt in people's minds
how Secaucus feels about terrorists.
The American flag has come in vogue again; the history of which once meant something utterly
different from what it does today. In the past, before World War One is symbolized freedom, but
without that macho bullshit that came after the war. Now, people wave it with a viciousness, a
kind of "Up Yours" sign that dares anyone to defy it.
A woman at work took unkindly to my joke about burning the flag after someone had mistakenly
sent me a paper version instead of sending it to her.
"Burning the flag is disgraceful," she snarled.
"No," I said. "It is a protest. When a person feels this country's government did something
horrible enough, such as dropping napalm on innocent people in Vietnam, then burning the flag is
"It shouldn't be allowed," she insisted.
"It's freedom of speech," I said.
"So is burning a cross," she said. "Would you allow someone to do that?"
"If it was their own cross on their own property," I said. "Why not?"
She had apparently learned her arguments from her father, the cop, and her super patriotic
brother, a firefighter, but didn't expect me to agree with burning of crosses.
"The difference between burning the cross and the flag is a matter of intent," I went on. "People
burn a cross on other people's property to intimidate them. But burning a flag is sending a
message to a country. No one intends to create fear by the act, just outrage."
In my travels around the state, I've discovered numerous reasons why people fly the flag. While
the movement started as an honest expression of grief over those lost, it has become a litmus test
of patriotism. Most of the white people I see flying the biggest flags are the macho idiots who
just want to act tough. But there are other people flying huge flags, some whose physical
attributes signify them as Middle Eastern, and thus the flag becomes a defense against being
thought a terrorist.
Oddly enough, fewer cars boast flags than a decade ago, when the country was gearing up for the
Persian Gulf War. It was easier than to paint Sadam as a bad guy, because the war was distant,
and easily understood, with mounting armies facing off in the dessert. The new world war
President George Bush proposes is less easily understood a series of actions that may take years.
While the president beats the drums of war nearly daily, trying to make the terrorists into
monsters, people more stunned than patriotic.
With the FBI issuing statement after statement about potential future terrorist actions, the current
mood resembles a red scare with people looking over their shoulders and under their beds for
signs of attack. Those that might be mistaken for terrorists grab flags and hope no one looks at
them too closely.
As for Secaucus, a pocket of patriotic fervor, the flags seem to mean something else, a hope for a
more simple life of the past when good and evil were more easily defined. They do not
understand the subtleties of terrorism, nor do they want to. All of them are wanna-be John
Waynes hoping they aren't playing his role as Davie Crocket in the Alamo.
For my co-worker and other people like her, the flag seems to symbolize the limited worldview
most Americans have. It is like the police badge she has in her windshield, but instead of
protecting her from future traffic tickets, the flag keeps her blind to the sins of her own country,
and to the basic selfishness most Americans mistakes for civil rights.