The day after the 9-11 attacks, many of the food court vendors at Union Station in Washington, DC, sported American flags at their counters and stands. Most of them were immigrants. Many of them middle eastern or Asian. So many were non-white. Looking at their faces, I could tell that they were more afraid in those days than I was, than the threat that most of us realistically faced in those days.
The flags hung like door post lambs blood, begging that the plague of scorn would pass by their houses. They remember the days of collective accusation from the Oklahoma City bombing that lasted until it was discovered that the attack was more associated with fair Christianity than Islam. “We are believers,” their flags said, as if they were more familiar with Christian Identity than much of America.
In the mean time, there was a quiet that hovered over a city that was usually busy with air traffic crisscrossing the sky and the hustle of the town that seems to think it is the most important city on earth. We had an excuse to be something other than ourselves for a while, and to be even more ourselves as we attempted to conceal who we had been all those days behind the tragedy and our facades of solemn sorrow.
So many points on our day-to-day walk were covered with flags. It was like seeing the streets of my childhood on Flag Day or the Fourth of July. Flag lined streets, house after house. We did not have a flag. But the grandsons and granddaughters of the German immigrants that dominated the city's population—some of whom had kin folk in the outer reaches of the community's geography that still spoke German, or something closer to that than the English of their brothers and sisters who moved into town—decided on the flag on their front step.
I was envious. One day, I asked my dad if we could get a flag for our house. I am sure he asked me what it meant to me to have a flag at our house—what did a flag mean, in general? What did it mean in front of the homes of so many of our neighbors? I am not sure I had a good answer to any of those questions. But in the quiet that hovered over the holiday streets, with no self-important traffic crossing in front of us, he had an answer to mine. “I don't need a flag,” he said. “Everybody here knows I'm American.”
Most days, I do not need a flag. As this past week demonstrates, after ten years full of days after 9-11, we are still waving loud stripes and lonesome stars as if we do not know who we are. We will wave them until our arms are tired and then we will truly know.
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