On this the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I found myself remembering something that happened the evening after the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil—a distinction that the plane attacks mercifully still hold. One hundred fifty members of Congress, of both parties, gathered on the Capitol steps to join together to sing “God Bless America.” Watching the video again today still brings out my goosebumps. As President Bush told a Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001, “All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol singing ‘God Bless America.’”
To see how far we have come since then—and not necessarily in the right direction—consider the fact that there is a new trend in athletics: Refusing to stand while the national anthem is played. As a San Francisco 49ers fan, I am sorry to say that the trend was started by the 49ers’ onetime starting quarterback, now a second-stringer, Colin Kaepernick. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said after kneeling before a preseason game.
His gesture has been met with some condemnation but also a surprising degree of support and emulation. Kaepernick’s jersey has become the top-seller among NFL jerseys, and other football players such as linebacker Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos are emulating his dubious example by taking a knee when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played. Even some high-school players are following suit.
This is disturbing even to someone like me who frowns on ostentatious displays of patriotism. I admit, for example, that I roll my eyes at the Washington custom of policymakers and legislators wearing flag pins in their lapels to let everyone know how super-patriotic they are. I am not even convinced it is necessary to play the national anthem before every sporting event, a custom that is not followed in other countries or even in this country for non-sporting assemblies. Have you ever seen the “Star Spangled Banner” sung before a Broadway show, for example?
But as long as the anthem is sung, it is a sign of respect for the country and those who have given their lives for it to stand. To make a public display of rejecting the country and the patriotic sentiments of most of its citizens is offensive and inappropriate.
One of the best rejoinders I have seen to the “don’t stand” movement comes from William McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who once commanded the SEALs and is now chancellor of the University of Texas system. He wrote a letter to athletic directors asking them to ask their players to stand during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:
I spent 37 years defending freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Nothing is more important to this democracy. Nothing! However, while no one should be compelled to stand, they should recognize that by sitting in protest to the flag they are disrespecting everyone who sacrificed to make this country what it is today—as imperfect as it might be.
Those that believe the flag represents oppression should remember all the Americans who fought to eliminate bigotry, racism, sexism, imperialism, communism, and terrorism. The flag rode with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th, 10th, 24th and 25th Cavalry and Infantry Regiments. It was carried by the suffragists down the streets of New York City. It flew with the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. It was planted in the fields where Cesar Chavez spoke. It marched with Martin Luther King Jr….. It is a flag for everyone, of every color, of every race, of every creed, and of every orientation, but the privilege of living under the flag does not come without cost. Nor should it come without respect.
McRaven’s eloquent message is a much-needed reminder of several important points.
First, that America has always been imperfect but it has made tremendous progress during its history. Racism remains a problem today, even with an African-American in the Oval Office, but far less so than in the dark days of slavery and segregation.
Second, for all of its problems, America remains the greatest country in the world, which is why countless millions aspire to immigrate here. Not only are we free and rich—the same can be said of many other countries—but also the U.S. has taken the lead since 1942 in protecting other democracies from the threat of totalitarianism. No other country has done more to ensure the survival and success of freedom since the mid-20th century.
Third, American freedom has been paid for in blood—including the blood of patriots who suffered oppression far worse than anything Colin Kaepernick has experienced in his privileged life and yet who still fought for this country.
Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, we stop to remember those who have paid the price of freedom in the past 15 years. Not just the 2,996 people killed on 9/11—including the heroic passengers of Flight 93 who refused to let the hijackers fly their airplane into the U.S. Capitol and wound up crashing their aircraft in Pennsylvania instead. But also the 6,888 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. Many of them—the enlisted troops and their junior officers—volunteered for duty after 9/11 knowing what that entailed. But they went anyway because of their devotion to this country.
If you insult this country’s symbols—the Stars and Stripes, “The Star-Spangled Banner”—you are insulting all of those heroes who gave “the last full measure of devotion” that we may live free. Surely there are other, more appropriate ways to register protests against police brutality and racism without rejecting the very idea of patriotism, the ideological glue that holds this diverse nation together.