Patriotism is a touchy subject today in the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe and the war with Iraq. It is a touchy subject because it promotes alertness to censure actions that may not be but only appear unpatriotic, and any words, actions, and thoughts are potentially subject to such a censure depending on the accuser's definition of patriotism.

Patriotism is loving one's fatherland. It is at first sight a noble idea, innocuous to say the least. It is nevertheless a dangerous idea.

Love of one's own country means little if it half-hearted; it has to be intense to be genuine. Therefore, it elides so easily to the rejection of other countries. It comes into limelight in time of war because it is a notion that makes more sense when there is an identifiable enemy and one is expected to withhold love from enemies if not downright hate them. Patriotism is, therefore, best displayed in the face of enemies, actual as well as potential, and any country can be a potential enemy by being so perceived. It is at its most when a country perceives the rest of the entire world as being set against it. If you are not with us, you are again us. So, patriotism can easily degenerate into chauvinism, xenophobia, and jingoism. It harbors danger from the global viewpoint.

Patriotism is a dangerous notion. Imagine what happens when love of one's own family evolves into a hatred of some other families it considers an enemy and wages a feud, like the Capulet and the Montague, and there will be a tragedy among the loved ones in both families; we are familiar with this situation in the old time Sicily and in the Mafia, and in the legendary West of Hollywood Westerns.

For many patriotism is surely little more than sticking the Stars and Stripes, large and small, everywhere -- on one's sleeve, on the windshield, on the porch, on the rooftop, and in the sky -- as we have witnessed amply in the months following the fall of Manhattan's Twin Towers. For some it is serious and glorious; it is to dying willingly in the defense of one's country.

All lives are valuable; but not all lives are venerable. Every life is undoubtedly precious to the immediate family of the deceased but not all lost lives are equally venerable to the nation. Though saying this may sound offensive, among those who died for their country in a war, among those who died in natural disasters, among the innocent dead in any situation, among those who fell with the Towers, some were noble but others somewhat less so, all were surely innocent but some more so than others. But patriotism can make them all into heroes and heroines. Making distinctions risks seeming unpatriotic.

Patriotism by definition demands allegiance to one fatherland. This is a dilemma for any immigrant; and the dilemma is no small matter in a nation of mixed heritage that is composed largely, if not almost entirely, of recent and remote immigrants, of hyphenated citizens. Does one hate the grandfather or refuse to love him in order to be totally devoted to the father? How does a child born of a Moroccan mother and a Mongolian father and brought up in Malmö speaking Swedish before settling in the US conceive her or his patriotism? The poor child is perhaps by destiny unpatriotic. Not quite so exotic, an American born of a German father and a French mother, may find herself divided in her allegiance vis-a-vis her polyglot cultural heritage and her American citizenship. Is the president, like Reagan and Clinton, being just a little bit unpatriotic when they think of themselves as Irish and visit Ireland to pay their tribute to their Irish heritage? Is your family Polish or Croatian, someone may ask you, and you probably answer, no, it's actually Czech. You may answer, no, I'm American, but probably only in a special situation as when your country of origin is construed to be an enemy like the German-Americans in World War I and Japanese-Americans during the World War II.

If you are attacked, you defend yourself at any cost, so people say. It is better to kill than to be killed, even though two lives may be then lost. The assumption is that the situation precludes saving both lives but can only enable one life to be saved at the expense of the other. An enemy is no enemy unless it is vanquished. Patriotism thrives in time of war.

Patriotism also thrives in a police state because it can be forced on its citizens more efficiently by striking fear into them. I know because I lived in one. Silent bystanders are viewed as suspects and dissidents are suppressed; they are considered unpatriotic and as such bring danger to the state. They are made into enemies even though they may turn out to be more truly patriotic after all than shortsighted patriots. They may eventually prove themselves to possess a larger vision extending over national borders, even beyond the horizon; but they have to spend their lives for years under suspicion.

Historically, patriotism served its purpose best in the age of rising nations. It was a noble idea and still is but only if the notion of the fatherland is globally expanded to meet the needs of the world of interdependent nations. In retrospect, it is obvious that patriotism does not save a divided nation engaging in a civil war; each faction may claim to be more patriotic than the other but without a fatherland reduced into a mirage.

In a family squabble a sensible parent separates the siblings in a fight rather than let them finish up their conflict by having one or both injured enough to be no longer able to fight. Siblings at war are separated into their separate rooms or quarters giving them time to cool down, and then rules are devised to reduce the conflict and a compromise negotiated.

It is a terrible misconception to see the effort to counter terrorism as war. Terrorism is not a nation at war with us; it is an organized crime. There is no battleground, no armies to vanquish, no land to conquer; we must find other ways to eradicate it, as for poverty, crime, cancer, and drug use, for which the analogy with war was most unwisely misapplied.

Patriotism is perhaps politically useful, as is military intervention, in waging war with an identifiable enemy. In the effort to eradicate terrorism, foreign or domestic, however, patriotism only breeds distrust among the nation's citizens and weakens their solidarity. This thought deeply saddens me. What we need is humanity.


T. Kaori Kitao, 06.14.04

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