Flagged for Approval

They suddenly appeared everywhere Friday fluttering from car antennas, filling store windows, tacked up over apartment doorways. And my first thought was, "What's with all the flags? Is this Peoria or is this New York?"

Don't get me wrong. I know we need symbols to go up against the inspired ones that hit us Tuesday. There was a horrible inclusiveness in using our planes to knock our beloved skyline on top of us. It made "us" out of Wall Street traders and pushcart vendors, Joe Sixpack and Anna Absinthe, New York cops and those who generally fear them. New York, aside from scattered incidents of racial scapegoating, is pulling together -- giving too much blood and food and clothing. We're all loving Giuliani, a first for me. The groups I consider "us" agnostic peaceniks, New Yorkers, Americans, human beings generally agree that this is a tragedy, the rescue workers are heroic, and the terrorists should be punished.

But when I saw all the flags in Brooklyn Friday, I felt pushed away from the mourning party. I had just read that Americans polled overwhelmingly wanted war, and was feeling alienated from my country, just as I did during the national cheerleading after "we" bombed Libya and Iraq. To feel less like an alien, I live in New York, specifically in tofu-munching, yoga-happy, pacifist Park Slope. "There goes the neighborhood," I thought when I saw the flags Friday.

I headed to the peace vigil in Union Square that afternoon, my first time into Manhattan since Tuesday. The F-16s roared overhead. A white guy on the sidewalk near my apartment was pointing at the jets and screaming "Ya hear that? You're gonna see what it's like to get bombed, ya piece a shit."

I asked him who he was yelling at. He said eagerly, "the guys who run that store; they're fuckin' Muslims." I waited in vain for some Martin Luther King, Jr.-style eloquence to fill me. I finally said weakly, "THEY didn't fly into the World Trade Center" and walked away, shaking my head.

That guy is who the flag is for, I thought, or at least it is this week. On a peaceful Fourth of July, the flag represents what I do love about the United States the self-evident truths, the Bill of Rights, the beacon for the masses yearning to breathe free, the freedom to burn the flag and push the envelope and hash out our differences.

But this week, with the saber-rattling among our (mostly) elected officials and Arab-Americans being harassed and attacked, the flag is sinister. It says, "Let's bomb the fuckers." Any flag flown since Tuesday signifies an "us" that demands a "them," I thought as I headed to the vigil.

I was packing candles, still the most symbolic bang for the buck after all these centuries. Lighting a flame in New York this week makes emotional sense -- to honor the still-slogging firemen and their dead comrades, to connect with vulnerable neighbors, even to symbolize the hunt for terrorists hiding in the shadows.

Friday was another beautiful early autumn night and the park blazed with candlelight and singing. Friends and strangers lit their candles off each others', and made shrines and mini-shrines out of missing person fliers taped to the sidewalk, plastic-wrapped bouquets, candles, and a constant stream of instant magic marker messaging on rolls of paper.

The outpouring reminded me of the AIDS quilt: art therapy-cum-folk art-cum-potent symbol of tragedy's scale. Besides the scrawled prayers and We Love Yous for people dead and missing were pictures of the Twin Towers, bitten apples, broken I [heart] NY hearts, and eyes dripping tears. The miles of mostly peaceful graffiti murals produced this week are also full of American flags.

To my astonishment, the whole peace vigil was draped in flags. The stars and stripes appeared on signs pleading "Don't Turn a Tragedy Into a War," "Islam is Not the Enemy," and "Justice Not Revenge," and on head scarves, T-shirts, wrapped around shoulders and piled in the shrines. Flags were on doggie sweaters and quickie "America Under Attack" T-shirts. Strangest of all was a slow procession of Tibetan Buddhist monks, the last of whom held his candle in one hand, and in the other, a paperback-sized Old Glory on a stick. The red, white, and blue plastic against his rust-colored robe rang as dissonant as a mink on a PETA protester.

What was this hawkish symbol doing at my peace vigil? I began asking people wearing or carrying the flag "what does this mean to you now?" A 22-year-old in a Yankees cap, a brand new "America Stands Proud" T-shirt and a huge flag as a cape said, "unity." With? "Everybody here. You, them." His eyes welled as he said, "I'm feeling what everybody else is feeling." The words and the sentiment were echoed by many young hipsters shaken out of their cool. The flag was for them, a transmitter of near-telepathic empathy that had little to do with patriotism. I asked the flag-draped guy if the flag meant war and he said no, indiscriminate bombing would be a mistake.

Almost everyone wearing the flag opposed war, not only at the vigil, but on the street in Brooklyn and Manhattan. "Unity" and "freedom" were the two most common answers to my question "what does wearing or carrying the flag mean today?" But when asked "unity with whom?," few said "Americans." They pointed instead to "everyone affected" or "New York" or "the firemen." There was little defiance or anger; nobody talked about the flag showing terrorists that they couldn't scare us.

All in all, the flag seems to be serving New Yorkers not as a call to arms, or not just a call to arms, but as a tentative, politically neutral message of support and kinship. As a college student in a stars and stripes kerchief put it, "If everyone was wearing, like, a yellow hat, I'd be wearing that."

The song choice at the vigil was equally catholic: the Star-Spangled Banner; This Land Is Your Land; New York, New York; Give Peace a Chance; Amazing Grace; Born in the USA; Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The hippies took over and led everyone in We Shall Overcome; Michael Row the Boat Ashore; and yes, oh Lord, Kumbaya.

The symbols are very squishy here in New York, because it's all so unprecedented and confusing. We're still figuring out what happened to us and who we are in relation to it. Are we in a war? The TV news is already experimenting with the rippling flag war graphic in its Patriotism for Dummies series of banners: Attack on America; America Under Attack; America Rising.

We don't even know who the enemy is. Osama Bin Laden and his holy warriors are as hard to grasp as ghosts. And on Tuesday afternoon, I saw the first battle of the war against the ghosts, waged by New York's finest.

It was just before dusk, and a tow truck driver had snuck me through the Battery Park Tunnel to just south of what would soon be called Ground Zero. When we emerged from the tunnel, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, it was darker than in Brooklyn, part September shortening of days, part dome of black smoke overhead. White powder and singed memos swirled down West Street. Everything was muffled, nearly silent.

Dozens of dust-frosted cops huddled uncertainly in groups. Most wore helmets with the face shields pulled down, a sight familiar from demonstrations. But there were no demonstrators, no crowd to control, nobody to fight or protect. A vast riot squad faced down nothing but smoke and dust swirling from the wreckage piled on thousands of bodies. It was the closest I've ever been to a war zone.

The "us" I thought of in that sad, surreal place wasn't America; it was every person who's been bombed. It was innocent victims of wars "we" have funded and abetted and masterminded. It was anyone with the misfortune to be born in, say, Afghanistan, walking to work and being blown to bits. The last thing I wanted was to send a bomb or wave a flag.


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