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Which Brand of Patriotism?


The federal government’s designation of September 11 as “Patriot Day” raises an obvious question: What does it mean to be a patriot, especially in the context of 9/11?

The statist version of patriotism entails citizens who rally to their government in time of crisis. When the 9/11 attacks took place, the statist patriot did not hesitate. “We have been attacked,” the statist patriot declared. “This is not the time to debate and discuss. We must all rally behind the president and support whatever actions he takes. He is our commander in chief. We are now at war and we must do whatever is necessary to win the war. If our freedoms must be temporarily sacrificed, so be it. They will be restored after the war is won.”

The libertarian version of patriotism is totally different. We say that genuine patriotism entails a critical analysis of government conduct, especially during crises, and a willingness to take a firm stand against the government if it is in the wrong.

Thus, after the 9/11 attacks, libertarians pointed to the role that the U.S. government had played, with its policies in the Middle East, in engendering the anger, rage, and hatred that finally culminated in the 9/11 attacks. We argued the importance of changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy not only because it was wrong but also because it was destructive to the freedom and best interests of the American people.

That sent statists into orbit. To them, criticism of the government in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was unpatriotic and perhaps even treasonous. To them, the patriot had one duty after those attacks — to rally to the defense of the president and support whatever he decided to do in retaliation.

Notice the difference between statist patriotism and libertarian patriotism when it came to Iraq. Libertarians opposed the invasion of Iraq. We didn’t buy into the government’s fear-mongering regarding an imminent WMD attack by Saddam Hussein on the United States. We knew that public officials were using people’s fear of nuclear bombs to get them to support an undeclared war of aggression, which was decreed a war crime at Nuremberg, on Iraq.

How did we know that? Because we critically analyzed the situation. We knew that U.S. officials, from George W. Bush down, had pined for the removal of Saddam Hussein from office and his replacement with a pro-U.S. dictator since the Persian Gulf War. That was what the sanctions were all about—squeezing the life out of Iraqi children so that their parents would squeeze Saddam out of office.

We also witnessed Bush going to the United Nations to seek permission to invade Iraq. We knew that no president would ever do that if there was truly a military attack about to be made upon the United States. Bush was just looking for cover before he initiated his war crime, and the United Nations failed to provide it to him.

When Bush and other U.S. officials began braying about the nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein after 9/11, libertarians knew the whole thing was bogus — just a way to go after what the 11 years of sanctions had failed to achieve — regime change. Thus, we firmly opposed the invasion because we knew that lots of innocent people—people who had not been involved in the 9/11 attacks—were going to be killed and maimed.

Not so with statist patriots. Under their brand of patriotism, it was the duty of every citizen to not question what his government officials were saying. The president, the statists continually reminded us, has access to information that we don’t have. We have to trust him and put our faith in him. We’ve got to unequivocally support his decision to invade Iraq.

Thus, it came as no surprise when statists condemned libertarians for opposing Bush’s war on Iraq. Their condemnation was consistent with their brand of patriotism — unwavering allegiance to government in time of crisis.

The statist brand of patriotism might well be called the Germanic brand of patriotism. In fact, one of the best examples of the statist brand of patriotism occurred in Nazi Germany. When war broke out, the average German citizen immediately rallied to his government. The mindset was that this is what citizens are expected to do in times of crisis.

Thus, when the German government announced that Germany had been attacked by Czech troops on the Czech-German border, statist patriots didn’t think about challenging the pronouncement as bogus. That’s not what a patriotic citizen is supposed to do. In time of crisis, citizens are expected to behave patriotically by coming to the defense of their government.

There were, of course, a few instances of libertarian patriotism in Nazi Germany. The best example was the White Rose group, including Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and sister who were students at the University of Munich. They took the position that the duty of a citizen is to critically analyze the actions of his own government and to take a firm stance against the government if it’s in the wrong.

The White Rose group concluded that their own government was in the wrong and published a series of essays calling on the German people to oppose their government, even in the middle of the war.

Not surprisingly, when the Scholl siblings and their friends in the White Rose were caught, German officials considered them to be unpatriotic traitors who had betrayed their country. German officials executed them.

The German situation makes American statists very uncomfortable because the last thing they want is to be aligned with Germans who patriotically supported their government in time of crisis. But the fact is that the statist version of patriotism is precisely the brand of patriotism endorsed by the Nazi regime and followed by most German citizens.

Another situation that discomforts statist patriots involves the American Revolution. In that conflict, a small group of British colonists not only criticized wrongful conduct by their own government, they also took up arms against it. The British government was outraged, just as many other British citizens were. Their position was that a patriot stands with his government in time of crisis. British officials viewed the revolutionaries as unpatriotic traitors.

The revolutionaries took a different view of things. Their concept of patriotism was the same as that held by libertarians today — that a genuine patriot takes a critical view of government conduct and takes a stand against his government if it is in the wrong. Thus, since the British government was involved in grave violations of people’s freedom, the revolutionaries considered themselves to be the genuine patriots.

Where do American statists come out on that one? Well, most of them want to appear as being supporters of American independence. So, they’ll celebrate the Fourth of July and refer to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers as patriots. But deep inside, American statists know that their version of patriotism is diametrically opposed to that held by British revolutionaries in 1776.

A country that is guided by the statist version of patriotism is inevitably one that begins rotting from the inside. When people surrender their consciences and their moral principles to the state, the result will be a nation composed of weak, submissive, fearful, dependent people who will fall for anything the government tells them and blindly support whatever the government does, including to them. On the other hand, when people place conscience and morality above everything else, that will inevitably be a country of free, independent, courageous, principled people.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.