Emory Report
February 14, 2005
Volume 57, Number 19


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February 14, 2005
Flags & fears

Angelika bammer is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the institute for liberal arts

In the aftermath of 9/11, American flags were everywhere. People wore them, attached them to their mailboxes, houses and cars, and decorated yards and windows, grocery and laundry bags with them. They even showed up on baby pacifiers.

This display of flags has remained ever-present as part of our everyday landscape. What are these flags about? Whom are they speaking to and for? And how are we to read their mute, insistent repetition?

As Sigmund Freud observed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the experience of repetition—the re-experiencing of something identical—is often a source of pleasure, providing the reassurance of the familiar, the aesthetic satisfaction of discovering patterns. But it can also be the opposite, a source of unpleasure, imparting the feeling of being stuck, of repetition without progress, of being unable to move on.

Our memories of the past are both pleasurable and painful in just these ways: memories we call up can recollect happy times—times of confidence, optimism or joy—just as memories that come up unsummoned can pull us back to psychic spaces we would just as soon forget or leave behind.

The latter, Freud notes, are the memories of unresolved pasts that linger in our psyche like unbid guests who will not leave. Ghostly presences that shadow our unconscious everyday, offering neither resolution nor solace, they are inaccessible to our conscious grasp. We keep going back to them in our minds, as unable to get rid of them as we are to fully claim them. As Freud put it, such pleasureless and unproductive returns are compulsive, not willed. And this compulsion to repeat, he explained, is frequently a manifestation of trauma.

On the most explicit and immediately recognizable level, of course, the post-9/11 flags were a show of pride and strength. As quintessential symbols of national identity and reminders of American power, the flags were an assertive response to an outside threat, a forceful expression of national resolve. This resolve, the flags in their ubiquity and sameness seemed to suggest, was unified. It spoke with a single voice.

This unity, and the strength derived from it, was directly related to the trauma that the nation, as a whole, had just experienced. For, as French historian Ernest Renan posited in his landmark essay, “What Is a Nation?” the very ability of people to speak and to experience themselves as a people grows out of their shared memory—not of glory, but of pain. Writing in 1882, barely a decade after the brutal Franco-Prussian war left a vanquished and humiliated French nation, Renan declared that in binding a people together as a nation, “griefs are of more value than triumphs” because “they impose duties and require a common effort.”

In the American aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the shared grief, and the common effort that devolved from it, were unmistakable. To ask what suffering Americans had shared would have seemed ludicrous to most. The injury had been clear. Seared into our mind’s eyes were images of airplanes exploding into skyscrapers, of bodies falling from the sky. The flags were an immediate and spontaneous response to the shock of this devastation, an assertion that, even in the face of such violation and numbing loss, we held strong and “stood united.” In this regard, as an expression of unity and resolve, the display of flags that was repeated over and over again, on all sides, was a deliberate act of collective will.

But if we read the repetition of post-9/11 flags less as a willed response to collective trauma than as a much less conscious manifestation of a traumatic experience, then their meaning is less self-evident. Clearly, they signify something about nation, for “nation” is what flags officially represent. However, instead of seeing the ubiquitous American flags as expressions of American-ness—as if the meaning of “America” were clear—we could also see them as an attempt to interrogate what “America” meant to Americans.

Psychoanalytically speaking, from the perspective of compulsive repetition as a sign of trauma, one could see the ubiquitous flags less as expressions of Americans’ confidence and strength than as manifestations of their heightened state of uncertainty and fear. But if so, then fear of what?

Answers to this question were quick and ready at hand, seemingly as obvious as the nature of the trauma from which it stemmed. We were afraid, we were told, of those who had harmed us and would again, who had attacked and continued to threaten us. In response to this identification of what we were told that we feared, the military was mobilized to seal our borders, patrol our skies and watch over us. To protect “us,” we had to keep “them” out.

However, the problem with this solution, conceptually and practically, was right away obvious: “they” were not just outside, foreign enemies “over there.” They were here. In fact, “they” were inseparable from “us”: neighbors, colleagues, friends of our children, members of our families. What is more, “they” frequently, literally, were us in our various states of hybrid identities, multiple affiliations and divided loyalties. The truth was that, in the confusing maelstrom of the 9/11 crisis, while we indeed often found ourselves afraid or suspicious of “them,” we also, as a people, found ourselves confronting the even more disturbing fact that (perhaps even more than “them”) what we really feared was ourselves.

One clue lay in another set of ritualized gestures that often accompanied the flags: the repeated proclamations on decals, bumper stickers, yard signs and, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, even television ticker-tape scrolls, that declared: “We stand united.” The claim itself, in its familiarity, was relatively unremarkable, but the degree of its repetition was not. This repetition, similarly compulsive in its rote application as the accompanying display of flags, suggests that perhaps another trauma had come into play that was not defined by, or as, foreign terrorism. Perhaps the continual affirmation that we stood united was, in fact, a clue to a fear that we could not yet even consciously admit, a fear about the state of our very united-ness itself.

This fear was not of others and the harm they might do to us, but of ourselves and the consequences of 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 weeks and months after Sept. 11—that our diversity was our strength—our history reminded us that this assurance was a very fragile bridge over chasms of pain- and rage-filled differences. We knew, from our history and the reminder we had just received, that under pressure those differences could explode as suddenly and unexpectedly as an act of terror on a sunny, blue-sky day.

Perhaps this, then, is another way to understand the ubiquitous flags: as an expression of fear that we, as a people, might not be up to the challenge of the very unity we so proudly and loudly proclaimed. Could a people as deeply divided as we were–—in our cultural roots, our material realities, our spiritual strivings and our political goals—form a national community that would hold?

This essay is excerpted with permission from “United We Stand: Terrorism and National Identity,” published in Roads to Reconciliation: Conflict and Dialogue in the 21st Century (M.E. Sharpe, 2005).