The Washington Times

What is striking this Fourth of July week is something rather unstriking – the presence of large numbers of American flags all across the landscape. In years past, Independence Day was indeed the time for festooning the country with red, white and blue. But usually by the fifth at the latest, the bunting had come down and the flags restored to the cupboard drawers.

Now, the flag is everywhere – but has long been everywhere and is likely to remain on display everywhere for the foreseeable future. By the earliest days following September 11, the flag was back with a passion. No more yellow ribbons in times of adversity, thank you very much. Americans settled quickly and correctly on considering all of the country and all of their countrymen to be under attack that day.

This was a major change in a nation in which the dominant impulses, for more than a generation, were private, individual. Having fought a Cold War – which included some shooting wars – against a superpower, the Soviet Union, organized on principles of collectivism, and having undergone wrenching adjustments at home in the early 1980s to rescue the domestic economy from “stagflation” by means of liberalization, Americans’ focus on the individual has to be seen as a triumph. It’s a faith in human possibility and in particular in the opportunities the United States has to offer to those lucky enough to live here – as well as to our friends and allies around the world, to the extent they find our system worthy of emulation.

But something was missing from this era of individualism – a sense of the American nation as the political expression of American society as a whole. The flags come out in large numbers every Fourth of July, ceremonies nationwide faithfully remember the war dead on Memorial Day, everybody stands for the National Anthem and applauds after “home of the brave.” Indeed, as recently as 1988, the Pledge of Allegiance played a critical role as a controversial issue in a political campaign [the difference this year being the consensus among politicians everywhere that the Ninth Circuit had gone squirrely in objecting to “one nation under God”]. But withal, these occasions mainly served as reminders of something about which the country did indeed need reminding, namely, the extent to which the vast freedom and individual liberty Americans enjoy remains socially and politically grounded.

Some have gone so far as to argue that we are a better country because of September 11. We came together, we rallied around the flag, we supported the actions our leaders felt we had to take, we understood at once that we are engaged in something for the long haul, we came to a more accurate sense of not only our weaknesses and vulnerabilities but also our strength. We rediscovered a national purpose.

I think, however, that there is something monstrous that lurks behind the conclusion that we became a better country after the attack. The people who have said this don’t mean anything more by it than to draw attention to the positive elements I just mentioned. But when examined more carefully, this proposition seems to me uncomfortably close to, if indeed it can be distinguished from, the proposition that nations need enemies in order to be fully nations. We, therefore, would have to count ourselves lucky that an enemy came along when it did. This is distasteful enough, but a further implication is that if one ever finds oneself without an enemy, one should designate one arbitrarily, in the interest of political hygiene. That’s fascism.

In the second place, it misconstrues the nature of what happened in the aftermath of September 11. Americans were traumatized by their newfound sense of vulnerability, some said. But the response to September 11 was nothing like the confusion, panic and existential uncertainty one might expect following a blunt-force trauma. People by and large knew what to do, from the earliest hours. Americans did not invent themselves as a society in the days after the attack, nor was this the moment they discovered for the first time that they need a government. The positive elements of the response drew on what was there before the morning of September 11.

In this respect, the test of social and national health is whether society and its political instrument, the government, retain the capacity to respond to adversity even through seemingly placid times, during which people’s minds are on other things. The paradox is that it is a test that can only come from the outside. To self-administer, you have to go around looking for enemies to fight. Again, that’s fascist.

In any event, we have passed the test visited upon us, at least so far. And the flags flying not this week but last week and next week are a sign of it.