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9/11 and Patriotism

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, we can look back and be struck by not just the horror of the deaths and destruction, but by the way our country came together after such a terrible event. The unity didn’t last long. Few Americans objected to targeting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, although support for that action began to dissipate when the Taliban government in Kabul became our target. The unity really began to fracture when our government decided to invade Iraq, a decision that is almost universally now regarded as not only based on factual errors of intelligence, but one that was a strategic error, given the volatile underbelly of the Middle East that was revealed by the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I’m still amazed by statements made by many, many supporters of the Iraq War, such as Paul Wolfowitz on Meet the Press today, that every expert opinion and intelligence report from not just the United States, but all over the world at the time, indicated that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Wolfowitz, like many others, seems to ignore the fact that experts such as Hans Blix, head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or Mohammed El Baradei,  Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the agencies directed to determine the status of Iraq’s possession of weapons,  reported no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (see, for instance, El Baradei’s report of March 7, 2003, two weeks prior to the launch of the U.S. invasion: https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/statements/status-nuclear-inspections-iraq-update ).

I’m amazed that our government leaders, our media and the American public believed the story of WMD in Iraq because I was following the reports of the UN and the IAEA on CNN, and it was clear that no evidence had been found, yet reporters, politicians, pundits and military leaders, simply ignored these reports from the agencies tasked to make the determination of Saddam’s possession of WMDs. America was swept up in a mass delusion, fueled not just by false government information, but by blind “patriotism.” I put the word patriotism in quotation marks because I don’t believe that going along with one’s government, even when what the government is doing is probably wrong, is patriotic.

In 2003, the majority of Americans had worked themselves into a war fever, one that selectively believed evidence that supported their antagonism against Iraq, that ignored evidence that contradicted their beliefs, and one that vilified anyone who disagreed with them as “naïve,” or “unpatriotic.”  Analysis of what happened within the inner circles of the Bush administration to cause even level-headed cabinet members such as Colin Powell to believe and act upon flimsy and faulty information (what Powell later called a “great intelligence failure”), have used the social psychology concept of “groupthink” to explain how everyone to whom the president turned for advice echoed the same misinformation. Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis, refers to group decisions made when a group insulates itself from contradictory opinions by processes such as believing their decisions are moral ones, havng an illusion of invulnerability, rationalizing any indications they could be wrong, holding negative views of those who oppose them, and putting pressure upon members to refrain from dissent, including exercising self-censorship and direct pressure on members to conform to the majority opinion. Negative information is dismissed or ignored. Analysis of the decision making that went into the conclusion that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and ties with al Qaeda, necessitating an invasion of Iraq, at the level of the presidential cabinet, show that the groupthink process was at work. But it was also at work in the general population, and among the popular media. No one wanted to raise their hand and claim that the emperor was naked. Those who dissented were ostracized and criticized as unpatriotic.

What is the lesson for today from the Iraq War history? There are many, but one is that blind patriotism, the kind that insists that America is exceptional regardless of the level of our current achievements, generates a feeling among our citizens that we are allowed to play by different rules than everyone else: we can torture prisoners, we  can decide who is allowed to have what kind of weapons, we can conduct cyber warfare that is considered unfair when other countries do the same, we can decide who is allowed to run another country. Many citizens, led by politicians, have conflated religion and patriotism. They feel that God is on America’s side, that God blesses America above and beyond any other nation, that our national symbols, such as our flag or our national anthem, have a sacredness about them, similar to symbols of religion. What our politicians and generals ultimately decide will be guided by God, who is looking out for the welfare of his chosen nation.

None of these ideas makes any sense, of course, but woe to the person who questions them. These super patriotic sentiments are shared by enough Americans that they have the effect of intimidating any challenge to them, either by ordinary citizens or the media. And ultimately they lead to proposals such as that we should “not allow” dictators (whom we may have supported at one time) to continue robbing their citizens of their freedom, that we “cannot allow” any countries except those that we favor to gain nuclear weapons, that we are able to destroy our enemies if we simply have the will to do so. And they direct the national ire at people such as Colin Kaepernick, who commits the “sin” of sitting during the playing of our national anthem at a football game, because he wants the country to address its treatment of people of color.

America is strong because we have a system that was designed to allow freedom of expression of ideas so that when the country makes a decision, it reflects each individual’s best estimate, based upon use of his or her intelligence and reasoning, of the best way to achieve the most desirable outcome. Closing one’s mind so that only one side of a story is heard and only a subset of information is allowed to influence us, is not the best way to respond to a challenge. It’s what our country did following 9/11 when we attacked Iraq and it will be what we do in the future if we continue to promote blind patriotism as better than strong reasoning based upon knowledge and information, if we punish those who question the direction our country is going and announce their questioning by failing to respond “properly” to national symbols. Saluting the flag, blustering about the glory of our country, singing the national anthem, are not substitutes for thinking.

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    Being patriotic is very good thing one should always be patriotic because patriotism is really very great for every one. THere are alot of definitions of patriotism. A real emotional feelings for our country is known as patriotism. If some one have alot of effection with his country then we can ...

Reader Comments (2)

How utterly ironic! Today I came across a "poem" TODAY that I had written after 9/11 about my fear of being called "unpatriotic" in the midst of the "group think" this article addresses.

We were living in Minneapolis at the time and I often called in to local conservative talk stations to counter the rhetoric. I was called a liberal lunatic. After 9/11, on Sept. 24, 2001, I wrote this letter in an email to a local radio talk show host, the flamboyant Barbara Carlson, former wife of Governor Arne Carlson in response to her question: 'Why are so many who disagreed with our military response to 9/11 remaining silent.?"

The response below, I believe reflects my fear at the time for speaking out against the "group think" that was obviously going on..


You ask me why I'm afraid to speak,
to tell you what I really feel.
I'll tell you why.
I am the minority, and if I should say how I feel,
they'll call me a coward and say I'm unpatriotic.

My father served in World War II;
My father-in-law landed on the beaches of Normandy;
and my husband served in Viet Nam.
Yet they'll call me unpatriotic.

They'll call me unpatriotic because I can't understand.
I can't understand how of the death of so manyinnocent lives
causes the flags of color to wave in pride.

I don't understand why my friends send me e-mails with
beautiful pictures - an eagle whose tear drops
before my eyes while a digital "God Bless America"
plays in the background.
If I were to suggest we fly a black flag of mourning instead,
they'll call it capitulation.
And I don't understand -- so I say nothing.

I don't tell them I wish I could fly
the flags of all the nations
that have laid flowers at our embassies,
or suggest to them, that perhaps, we all could fly a flag of peace.
But I don't say that because they'll say I'm some kind of "looney liberal"
or revert to the term "communist" because they know so little of the world.

I don't mention that, during this time, I can't help but think also of
the thousands of civilians who were killed in the Persian Gulf War
I say nothing because they'll think that means
my heart aches less for the delicate lives in the World Trade Center

I don't tell them I found it strange last Tuesday
to wear red, white, and blue
instead of black.
I won't say a word,
but I'll wear black every Tuesday,
until the pain of 9/11 evaporates from my soul.

I won't tell them that I don't understand the woman
in the SUV alongside of me who has a rosary glistening
delicately as it hangs on her rear view mirror -
while she displays a sticker on her back bumper that says, "Nuke 'Em"
I will only look at her with open mouth as I pass
because to do more
would be to create further hatred.

They'll never know that I, who they label "liberal"
with mockery in their voice,
stood by my fireplace last week, as it raged in flame,
and held my hand close
and held it there long
to get a tiny glimpse of the terror
the innocent felt on that horrid day.
But I'll say nothing
because they wouldn't understand.

I'll say nothing because my opinion
gives me a uniform that puts me on
the receiving side of the vitriolic rhetoric
by a raging media in a war it can't give up.

Most of all I'll say nothing
because it would crush my soul
for others to think that I don't love, with all my heart,
this extraordinary place where I was born
or the liberty it has brought to my life.
It would destroy me to think that they assume
I would not stand with them and die if I have to
defending that liberty.

I'll say nothing because, in a way, I have faith--
faith that perhaps our government will be wiser
than all the people
craving for instant drive-up service
at the fast serve restaurant of revenge.

I'll say nothing because I live in a society
where the majority rules,
and I can yield to that.

But in my heart, I'll wave the flag of humankind
and continue to feel I am a citizen of the world.
And I'll walk among those who hate us
and assume they don't
because I can't live any other way.

And I'll believe that hard-wired in humanity
is the basic instinct of survival
that always triumphs over destruction,
And that those on this unique and wondrous planet
who know that we have a mandate from the universe to live on
in order to solve the mystery of our own existence,
will prevail.

But for now, I'll say nothing.

Now in 2016, the optimism I had and faith in humankind expressed in that "poem" has eroded because we the military path we pursued because of "patriotism" has led us to a road that has made everything worse. But I said nothing.

September 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

Billie: You've said it all much better than I did. The national myopic regarding Iraq was staggering. It's almost equaly amazing how many people today (including Donald Trump) seem to have amnesia regarding their support for the war at the time.

September 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

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