Us vs. Them 

The World Trade Center and the Ugly Side of Patriotism

Just hours after the bizarre news that two hijacked commercial airplanes rammed into the side of the World Trade Center's twin towers, a used car dealership along North MLK Blvd in Portland hung a homemade banner. It read, "Kill All Them in the Middle East." Like opening interment camps for Japanese-Americans after the attack of Pearl Harbor, the instantaneous blame and outrage flashed a warped side of patriotism. Is this what we can expect in the coming weeks and months?

"Eventually, we're going to think this [act of terrorism] was inevitable," explains William Browne, the author of Groups, Interests and U.S. Public Policy. Sixty years after Japanese forces bombed a naval base at Pearl Harbor, that surprising early-morning sneak attack is now thought of as simply the next obvious chapter in an elementary school textbook. In the context of nations divvying up the globe, and America supplying arms to Europe, it is hard to believe that America would not have been attacked in 1941. Almost overnight, the bombing of Pearl Harbor catalyzed free-floating, pro-war sentiments into a cornerstone of patriotism which was unshakable for the next four years.

With increasing audacity and frequency over the past decade, Americans have become targets for terrorist attacks, from the bombing of the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City, to a bold ramming of the USS Cole in Yemen.

"If we put up with this garbage in the rest of the world, this is what we'll have to put up with here," explains Browne; the bombing of the World Trade Towers is a natural consequence of America's failure to decisively stomp out terrorism. Browne goes on to predict, "This will be a rallying cry; just like we said that we're going to stomp out Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan."

One hundred years ago, the bombing of the USS Maine sparked America's engagement with Spain over Cuba; 60 years ago Pearl Harbor opened the door to World War II. At the base of such calls to arms is the bedrock of an American psyche that demands retaliation.

"It is everything that we learned in school," says Browne. "There is a latent patriotism; it is always there, marginalized until something activates it."

In times like the Olympics or national elections, one's sense of belonging to a clearly delineated abstract--like a nation-state--emerges; the greater the affront on that sensibility, the clearer the line between "us and them" becomes.

An attack directly on Americans--precisely because they are Americans--arouses a need to figure out not only "who we are," but more importantly, "who they are."

"It's us versus the bad guys," says Browne. He goes on to point out that this attack--one directed at the heart of America--has the ironic potential to unify Americans more than perhaps any event in the past 50 years. Unlike the Oklahoma City bombing, where even prominent intellectuals like Gore Vidal expressed sympathy for Timothy McVeigh's anti-government sentiments, there are few outspoken advocates for terrorism.

"Everybody hates a terrorist," Browne states. "People are going to take this one personally."

He explains that while the consequences of Pearl Harbor resonated with patriotism, the bombing did not provide a venue intimately familiar to Americans. Almost everyone has flown in an airplane or visited New York; fewer have been on a naval base. Several other political science experts added that this swollen sense of patriotism will also directly and radically shift US politics.

"An event like this gives any President great opportunities and hidden liabilities," explains Ron Tammen, the Director of the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. "There is an opportunity to rally the country and opposition is less likely to be vocal."

In the weeks leading up to the terrorist attacks, President Bush's ratings were steadily waning, and his policies weakening. But issues like domestic energy exploration will have a new lease, as President Bush could rationalize that America does not want to be dependent on outsiders like the Middle East for oil and other resources.But Tammen quickly adds that mismanaging a crisis can also undermine a presidency. The final year of President Carter's tenure was hobbled after a secret mission to rescue hostages from Iran ended when two helicopters collided.

Although an attack on American landmarks has greatly intensified our sense of "us," Tammen concludes that for this sense of patriotism to truly reach its potential, we still need to find the counterpart to that relationship: "Who are they?"

"We have an enemy out there, but we don't know exactly who; this makes the whole fight and idea of patriotism much more complex," he explains.

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