The New Shape of Patriotism: Still Shocked, We're All Patriots Now. What We Owe the Nation-And Each Other

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The New Shape of Patriotism: Still Shocked, We're All Patriots Now. What We Owe the Nation-And Each Other


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


I wanted to go to the Statue of Liberty, and figured my police press credential might get me there. Not a chance. They tell me at the ferry that it is "closed indefinitely," which depresses me as much as anything all week. I call a government official who says that the president has said privately that he wants the Statue of Liberty open as soon as possible, but he has been told that it simply is not secure. They're hoping to let tourist boats at least float past Lady Liberty soon, so the people can feel her patriotic presence.

Patriotism. Even now the word has a musty quality, like an old war-bonds poster. We spent so many years thinking of "patriots" as New England football players that the concept almost turned to kitsch. American celebrities are so out of shape, patriotically speaking, that many didn't seem to know the words to "America the Beautiful" during their "Tribute to Heroes" telethon last week. The bigger questions slide by: What does patriotism mean now? What does it require of us?

Not enlisting--at least not yet. The military has plenty of recruits. Perhaps true patriotism demands a broad national commitment to something that needs fixing. After the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in 1957, Congress used the patriotic fear over sputnik to spend large sums on math and science education and the interstate highway system. What's the challenge now? Maybe a big push to teach students about the rest of the world, a subject that most states don't even require. (Learning Arabic would be an especially patriotic act). Or international economic development to bolster moderate Muslims. Or energy independence.

But I can't handle such extrapolations just yet, so I spend an hour or two most days just wandering the streets of lower Manhattan looking for patriotism in the flesh. I'm rarely disappointed.

I visit a firehouse on South Street. Engine 4, Ladder 15. These were the firefighters who answered the first alarm. They raced up hundreds of stairs, helped to save thousands of people, then radioed that they were in the lobby as the tower collapsed. On the blackboard is an announcement that Scott Larsen's wife had a healthy boy on Sept. 13. I scan the list of 14 missing out of 42 from this company, and Larsen's name is among them. Patriotism is heroism--risking it all for people you don't even know.

Walking toward ground zero, the Stars and Stripes are especially beautiful. We have been violated, and the flag, like a brilliant dreamcoat, warms and protects us--at least for now. Inside the "red zone" of wreckage, I see one plastered on the back of a hard hat and remember what being patriotic meant a generation ago. During the Vietnam War patriotism was nationalism. If you didn't buy in, you were out. …

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