In every war, controversies over patriotism inevitably arise. Most everyone would agree that patriotism involves the loyalty that a person has toward his country. But there are two conflicting concepts arising out of the application of that principle.
One concept dictates that a citizen has a duty to make an independent, reasoned judgment of whether the actions of his own government are in the best interest of his country. Obviously, that is a subjective matter: people might have different standards and might reach different conclusions from the same set of facts. But what matters is not that there be unanimity of beliefs but rather that the citizens decide for themselves whether a particular governmental course of action is in the best interest of their country.
Therefore, this concept of patriotism requires the citizenry to stay abreast of events. It might even require them to study difficult and complex subjects such as history, politics, and economics so that they will be better equipped to arrive at the best judgment.
Under this view of patriotism, citizens who support a particular war as well as those who oppose it are all behaving patriotically because they have each reached an independent, albeit different, decision about what course of action is in the best interest of their country.
Throughout history, however, there have been those who have argued in favor of a different notion of patriotism — one that entails an unconditional support of one’s government during wartime. Obviously this type of patriotism does not require the citizen to do any study or engage in any reasoning process. All that is expected is, “Support your government during wartime.” I believe that this is a false notion of genuine patriotism and one that every American should reject. Not only does it involve an abrogation of individual responsibility on the part of the citizen, it also has enabled governments throughout history to lead their citizenry to ruin.
How do these different concepts of patriotism apply in the current crisis?
Consider the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1999 and on the USS Cole last year. U.S. government officials were (and are) convinced that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda associates were behind those attacks and that they had been planned from terrorist camps located in Afghanistan.
As far as I know, no Americans called for bombing Afghanistan after those attacks. Why? Presumably because they made an independent judgment that such a course of action would not be in the best interest of the American people. They were behaving patriotically. But what if President Clinton had decided to bomb Afghanistan after those early attacks? Would those same Americans have then opposed the bombing? If so, they would have been behaving patriotically.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, most Americans have presumably arrived at a new, independent conclusion — that the bombing of Afghanistan is now in the best interest of our country. They might reason, for example, that the bombing is the only way to permanently stop the terrorists. They are behaving patriotically. What if President Bush had decided against bombing Afghanistan? Would Americans who are supporting the bombing today have opposed the president’s decision not to bomb? If so, they would have been behaving patriotically.
It is entirely possible, however, that a person who opposed the bombing of Afghanistan after the first three terrorist attacks might arrive at the same judgment as before — that despite the September 11 attacks, it would still not be in the best interest of the country to bomb Afghanistan. For example, he might conclude that such a course of action is likely to produce more terrorism rather than less. Standing his ground and opposing the president, he is behaving patriotically.
Who then is behaving unpatriotically in the current crisis? Those people who endorsed their government’s decision not to bomb Afghanistan after the earlier attacks and their government’s decision to bomb Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks simply because they consider it their duty to support whatever actions their government takes, and not because they arrived at an independent judgment in favor of the government’s decisions. Surrendering personal responsibility to their public officials, they jeopardize not only their own well-being but also that of our country.
It is a fairly safe assumption that most Americans love their country, which sometimes requires them to oppose their government. That is not something to bemoan; it is something to celebrate! After all, isn’t it that concept of patriotism that we commerorate every Fourth of July — a patriotism that drove a small band of British citizens to oppose their government because they loved their country?