How 9/11 Impacted Patriotism

How 9/11 Impacted Patriotism

By Jake Thurman 

Every year around September 11, most of us undoubtedly spend time discussing and reflecting on the events as they occurred in New York, Washington DC, and Summerset County, Pennsylvania. We are all familiar with the profound tragedy, the heroic tales of self-sacrifice, and the uplifting stories of a wounded nation coming together. This being the case, the following article won’t include much about what actually happened on September 11, 2001. However, I hope that the decision to focus on other topics will not be construed as being dismissive of the magnitude of the actual events, nor of the tragic loss of life endured twelve years ago. Instead, what I’d like to discuss is the impact of our responses to September 11, particularly as they relate to the tricky subject of patriotism.

Since September 11, 2001, the statement, “9/11 changed the world,” has become somewhat cliché. While it’s definitely true in many senses, I think we often fail to analyze exactly how our world has changed over the last twelve years. In 2011, Stanford University’s school newspaper, the Stanford Report, collected responses from prominent members of Stanford’s faculty on the question of how 9/11 changed things. The responses were thought-provoking, to say the least. Here are some disheartening key points from a few of the responses[1]:

  • “The U.S. has developed a ‘garrison mentality’.”
  • “Open-ended war has become permissible in the name of security.”
  • “The U.S. has become more intolerant in several ways.”
  • “Seeds of distrust and phobia have been planted.”
  • “The practice of tolerance has come increasingly under assault.”
  • “Not much has changed at all.”

As you can tell, this article had few positive things to say about the direction our nation took following 9/11. As I looked at this, I wondered how we created a trajectory that projects these values, especially given the fact that the immediate response to the tragedy seemed so different from the picture painted here. To reconcile this, I began to construct in my mind the things that connected all of these sentiments. It didn’t take me long to boil it down to how we define a single word, patriotism.

Patriotism, or devotion to one’s nation, is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, it is often quite the opposite. Clearly, aspects of the swell in national pride directly following 9/11 led to some true good, whether that be a general increase in our sense of community, or the specific deeds of those who took action to help others in need. Unfortunately, certain responses, often under the guise of patriotism, led to the marginalization of individuals within our society and the suppression of reasoned discussion. In such an emotionally charged environment, the task of appropriately analyzing the events of 9/11 was rendered nearly impossible. Psychologists that study patriotism dubbed this type of patriotism, “blind patriotism.” It is defined as, “a rigid and inflexible attachment to country, characterized by unquestioning positive evaluation, staunch allegiance, and intolerance of criticism.”[2]

What seems, in many cases, to have happened in the wake of 9/11 is that our only definition of patriotism became that of “blind patriotism.” In the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 tragedies it grew more difficult to ask the tough questions about the context of the events in a historical sense. It became difficult to publicly discuss the U.S.’s role in subsequent geopolitical affairs and how this role had the potential to endanger our nation further. It became difficult to do any of this without having your “American-ness” questioned. It became difficult to dissent.

Fortunately, there is another type of patriotism. One that I would argue is far older and more historically relevant in the story of our nation. It requires you to think more deeply about the world around you. It encourages you to ask questions. This type of patriotism requires citizens to think critically about what America “is” and then react swiftly when policies or actions are in opposition to that view, even when faced with unfavorable odds. This type of patriotism often requires dissent. Psychologists call it, appropriately enough, “constructive patriotism.”

Constructive patriots are represented in studies by statements like, “I express my love for America by supporting efforts at positive change,” or, “I oppose some U.S. policies because I care about my country and want to improve it.”  Constructive patriotism changes the language we use around topics like 9/11 or our shared “American-ness.”  The simple language of the “blind patriot” (and the us vs. them mentality that accompanies it) sounds more appropriate when discussing a sports rivalry than when attempting to insure that values of liberty, equality, and justice remain (or continue to become) at the core of who we are.

The “constructive patriot” knows that what America is, or at least could be, is a place that looks very different from the picture painted by those Stanford professors. It’s important to understand that this different America couldn’t exist if we continued to define ourselves by our symbols and the jingoistic version history espoused by “blind patriots.” For a constructively patriotic America to exist, America needs to be defined by the people within its borders and the very real struggles and triumphs of those people throughout this nation’s history. Struggles and triumphs that often times required American citizens to ask the hard questions and take the harder path, even in the face of great opposition. It is a version of history in which the times America wavered are analyzed alongside the times it prevailed. It is that version of history that allows us to truly see how our nation evolved, warts and all.  It is that version of history and patriotism that requires us to insist that the tragedy of September 11, 2001 not be co-opted by those who would distort its meaning into a cause for the rise of harmful nationalist sentiments, but upheld and understood in a way that doesn’t dishonor their memory and sacrifice.

So, as we continue to reflect on the events of September 11 this week, we should all stop to think about a few things. We should make some time to reflect on the magnitude of the sacrifice that people made twelve years ago. We should try to understand what it would take for someone to run back into a burning building to ensure that others could get to safety. We should imagine what it would take for another person to willingly risk their life, day in and day out, to keep us safe. We should ask ourselves what it would take for each of us to do the same. After contemplating all of this, it’s impossible to not be left wondering how we could let the courage and spirit of those people be distorted to promote the version of America described by the six Stanford professors. Luckily, we have a different way forward. Through our shared history of constructive patriotism, we possess a blueprint for turning that image on its head. Go look for it. Go do it.


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