Flags and Fears
Compulsive repetition and national identity


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Patriotism and the Press
When the news comes veiled in stars and stripes, something powerful is lost
By Catherine Manegold

February/March 02 Academic Exchange

Confronting the traumatic aftermath
By Barbara Rothbaum

December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange

Living with the Dead
History, politics, and loss
By Gary Laderman
December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange

Additional Scholarly Responses to September 11



Since September 11, U.S. flags have become a feature of our daily lives: people wear them; attach them to mailboxes, houses, and cars; and decorate yards and windows with them. They’ve even shown up on baby pacifiers.

On one level, this ubiquitous display of flags has become part of the daily wash of patriotism, a visual echo of the national call to arms. But is that all? Is that all they have been trying to say to us, these flags, in their mute, insistent repetition?

I somehow don’t think so. Nothing is so simple, and—as my colleague Catherine Manegold pointed out in the February 2002 issue of the Exchange—certainly not flags.

As Freud notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, repetition—the re-experiencing of something identical—can be in itself a source of pleasure. But it can also be the opposite: a source of pain, a manifestation of an experience that disables the coping mechanisms of the psyche. When an experience cannot be absorbed into memory or safely stored in deep forgetting, it lingers, and we keep going back to it in our minds, finding neither resolution nor solace. Freud defined such pleasureless and unproductive returns as compulsive. And this compulsion to repeat, he explained, was a manifest sign of trauma.

In the aftermath of September 11, to ask what trauma the flags manifest seems, on the face of it, ridiculous. The trauma appears obvious. We all experienced it in some way: seared onto our minds’ eyes are images of airplanes flying into buildings, burning bodies and collapsing towers, a mass grave in the middle of New York City. In different ways, we all felt like targets in a covert war. The flags were an immediate and spontaneous re-sponse to the trauma of this experience, an assertion that even in the face of violation and loss, “we stood united” and held strong.

At least, this is how most commentary responded to the flags: as a proud—or, as critics preferred, arrogant—assertion of the nation’s strength, a strength deployed as much by the routine business in and around the very area where the World Trade Center towers had stood, as by the Air Force jets that were soon to roar over Afghanistan, dropping bombs. Of course, taken this way, the flags are precisely not a sign of inability to cope with trauma but an assertive response to a threat. As an expression of national unity, the repetition of flags is not compulsive, but an act of will.

But if we read the repetition of flags less as a response to trauma than as a manifestation of it, then their meaning is less self-evident. Clearly, they signify something about the idea of nation. Nation, after all, is what flags represent. Instead of seeing them as mere nationalist affirmations of American-ness, however, as if “America” were an established fact, one could also see the proliferation of flags as an attempt to cope with something represented by the term “nation” that produced significant anxiety. In other words, I propose that one could see the flags not only as a sign of power, but also as a sign of fear. The question then is, fear of what?

A clue might lie in another set of ritualized gestures that also marked the aftermath of the attacks: the repeated proclamations on decals, bumper stickers, yard signs, and ticker tape scrolls on tv that “we stand united.” The claim itself, in its familiarity, was unremarkable, but the degree of its repetition was not. This compulsion to repeat suggests that perhaps another trauma is in play that is separate from, albeit connected to, the threat of foreign terrorism. Perhaps, I found myself wondering, this fear is about our very united-ness itself, a fear not
of others and the harm they might inflict on us, but of ourselves and the harm we routinely inflict on one another, particularly on those of us marked as different in some way. For, despite the assurance repeated endlessly in those tense autumn weeks that our diversity is our strength, we also know that this assurance masks chasms of pain and rage-filled difference. And under pressure these differences can erupt into hostility as suddenly and unexpectedly as an act of terror on a sunny, blue-sky day.

Nations do not actually exist, god-given and set to go, as the historian Benedict Anderson reminds us. They exist, he explains, because people imagine themselves to be a people and then do things that enact and ritually symbolize such an entity, like consume the same news or hang the flag. In that sense, nation is not real; it is a postulate, a wager, a promise, an act of faith. We re-create it every day. And in so doing we realize how tenuous and fragile it actually is, particularly in times of danger.

Perhaps this, then, is another way to understand the ubiquitous flags: as an expression of fear that we might not be up to the immense task of imaginative re-creation. Are a people as deeply divided as we are able to join together into a community that holds? Perhaps the flags express the fear that under such pressure, we might just fracture along the fault lines of our differences, not standing united, but facing off. To imagine otherwise—to re-imagine a nation of people joined together across differences—would be to transform the compulsion to repeat into an act of re-creation.