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. Theyve 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 dont think so. Nothing is so simple, andas
my colleague Catherine Manegold pointed out in the
February 2002 issue of the Exchangecertainly not flags.
As Freud notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, repetitionthe
re-experiencing of something identicalcan 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
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 proudor, as critics preferred, arrogantassertion of
the nations 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
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 otherwiseto re-imagine
a nation of people joined together across differenceswould
be to transform the compulsion to repeat into an act of re-creation.