Yesterday morning those of us crossing campus along College Walk were confronted with a crop of miniature American flags that had sprouted over night. At first it seemed sweet to me, this commemorative display in honor of 9/11, but the more I thought about it, the further along College Walk I got, the more uncomfortable I began to feel.
This was different from the University flying its flags (the American flag and the University flag) at half mast yesterday, which of course is a common occurrence when honoring the dead. The lowering of our flags was a collective acknowledgement of the huge loss we suffered twelve years ago now, and a collective demonstration of remembrance. These little flags festooning the greenway, though, were clearly meant to represent the individual people who died on that day. Even without knowing then, as I found out later, that there were in fact 2,997 tiny flags, it was clearly an attempt to individualize our collective grief.
In theory this seems like a worthy idea -- it's important to remember people, to not lose sight of individual experiences. Except that this display completely whitewashed individuals into all being exactly alike -- American -- ignoring the fact that at least a couple hundred of those 2,997 lives lost were not.
9/11 may have happened on US soil, but it also (mostly) happened in one of the most cosmopolitan, one of the most international, cities in the world. It was, in fact, a global event, with global losses and global ramifications and global grief, and was spoken of as such in the days and weeks after that day.
I won't go into my whole diatribe about all the false patriotism that bloomed so horribly in the months after 9/11, but I will say that yesterday's display, while nice in theory, had an unfortunate jingoistic flair to it that left me unsettled.
It somehow didn't surprise me at all, this morning, to discover that the flags were the brainchild of the Columbia University College Republicans. At least it wasn't the University itself, which makes me feel a little bit better about the whole thing.
For quite a lovely take on a sadly common ambivalence about the flag, check out this beautiful piece.