By Alicia East
We couldn’t fly to New York City to hug a pregnant widow. We couldn’t sit across the table from each first responder and say, “You didn’t have to do it, but you did it anyway. Thank you.” We couldn’t pull over to embrace a stranger and say, “I know you’re hurting. I am too. But we’re gonna make it through.”
So we said it with our flags.
We flew our collective national grief in stars and stripes from our balconies, our cars, and our mailboxes. At my school in the quiet foothills of Colorado, we taped them up in our door room windows.
As dark and painful a time in history as it was, it was healing to see what Mister Rogers taught us to identify as the “helpers.” The ones who labored for days to dig survivors out of the rubble, took down a plane before it could reach its target, and returned up the stairs when everyone else was going down.
We learned their names and honored the stories. We wrote letters to the mothers and fathers they left behind.
With our flags, we honored them. 9/11/2001 brought in a collective reverence for service, gratitude, and sacrifice.
From my perspective, the flag represented standing for unity and love instead of giving into fear. Malala’s dad said it was an ideology that shot Malala. To me, the flags spoke to the ideology behind the attacks, too. They said–with all the stubbornness that runs in our veins–that our spirit would not be defeated. We will not hide. We will not hate. We will not give in to fear. We will still LOVE each other with gritty optimism.
Those flags represented America at its best–a place that offers a safe harbor for people from any religion or nationality. Still.
But there was another meaning to the flag, too.
For some, there was a darker and more exclusive meaning to the flag. I didn’t understand this as much at the time. While I saw people rallying around a common purpose, there were some rallying against a perceived threat, which got conflated with a skin color and a religion.
And so it goes that we were perpetuating the very ideology that caused the wound we were trying to heal. The true enemy was then what it is today: fear, hatred, and cynicism.
I don’t remember hearing much about anti-Muslim violence that popped up immediately following the attacks. Whether that’s because I was sheltered or naive, I’m not really sure. I knew (or was aware of knowing) exactly zero Muslims. I do remember an acquaintance refusing to fly on a plane with men who were/or were perceived to be Muslim.
On some level, I do remember feeling they were justified in their fear, which grieves me now. And knowing this was a comparatively mild situation gives me a pang of sadness and compassion for those men and for everyone else who experienced that and worse.
If I flew the flag today, it would be in agreement with the first sentiment, although when I see it flying beside Confederate flags or in the background of propaganda-ridden rallies, it seems more associated with the second.
For some, the flag isn’t about being defiantly and optimistically opposed to the fear that would divide us, but about giving in to it. It represents an “us versus them” mentality, which is a great irony for this “land of opportunity.” Maybe it’s time for the poem on the statue of liberty to be engraved where we really need it–not just to welcome people onto our shores but to welcome them into our homes and hearts. What could the world be if each heart could receive the “poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It’s only when it’s darkest that you can see the stars.
Times like 9/11, like our current climate, have always given opportunity for people to either fight for their most optimistic ideals or to give in to their basest fears and retreat to their private corners.
The idea that the flag represents only a narrow portion of the country rather than a unified whole isn’t new. But we each play a part in living out what it means to us. If I flew it today, it would come with a long list of qualifiers, but it still sparks a tender ache of patriotism for America at its finest.
It’s the way New Yorkers became one big family after 9/11. The way the heroes we read bedtime stories about sacrificed to hold this country accountable to its ideals. Harriet Tubman. Martin Luther King. Susan B. Anthony.
I remember that iconic photo of the first responders raising the flag atop the rubble. The adage we’ve heard and repeated in various forms still rings true: “When it’s darkest out, you can see the stars.” And the stripes.
While the temptation will always, always, always be there to fear, there is always, always, always reason to hope.
We may not be able to say with words everything we want to say to our neighbors and friends and people we disagree with. So let’s say it with our love.