A big, red, Ford pick-up truck was parked in the handicapped spot of the YMCA lot one day. It had a small American flag flying out its window and "God Bless America" and "Support President Bush and the Troops" stickers on its back bumper. Suddenly a wave of ire welled up and consumed me until I got on the running track inside the building and worked it off.
Such a strong reaction so early in the morning got me thinking about what was happening to me in the way I reacted to the American flag and its association with Bush politics. I hated that I had gotten caught up in a symbol. I hated the division in my country. I hated hate—but saw no end to it.
My feelings for the flag have not always been as negative as they were that day. Growing up in a small town near Detroit, I learned to love and cherish what the flag represents: America, the beautiful; America, the land of the free; America, the defender of the cause of justice and right.
For example, during Friday night high school football games I was moved at hearing the band play the national anthem before the start of the game as the flag waved in the brisk night under the bright lights of our stadium—especially when the trumpets blasted out the high notes and the drums hit the accented beats in the climax of the song.
As a young girl with the Brownies, I learned how to carry the flag in a parade. I stood up straight with my elbows outstretched and hands gripping the flag as it rested in a holster slung to my side. It took much effort to manage the flag's awkwardness, especially in the wind. Even so, carrying the flag was by far the most prized job of all.
In the Girl Scouts I learned proper care for the flag that mimicked a kind of sacred duty toward a precious possession. The flag can't be left in the rain. It can't touch the ground—but if it touches the ground, it must be buried in a special way. It must not fly in the dark unless lights reflect on it. In the presence of other flags, it must be higher than any other.
Dad taught me proper respect for the flag by taking me to the short and solemn Memorial Day ceremony around the flagpole next to the World War II monument outside city hall. A group of four or five policemen donned shiny silver helmets, dark blue uniforms with yellow scarves, white gloves and white spats on their boots. They shot loud, piercing blanks from their rifles in honor of the fallen. I began to see the connection between the flag and our history.
This history included Betsy Ross seated before a blazing fire diligently sewing together the first stars and stripes for the revolutionary forces. Her simple, domestic act would be a morale booster for the troops and an identifying symbol of who they were—and who we would become as the United States of America.
During the Civil War as our nation struggled over the question of slavery and the new economic and social order, our flag, was transformed into the stars and bars as well as the stars and stripes. After four years of the bloodiest, most divisive war we had ever seen, our nation finally did reunite under one banner, but it was at a tremendous cost.
During the great wars of the twentieth century, the red, white, and blue was there to help liberate Europe. After the bitter battle of Iwo Jima, a small group of soldiers hoisted the flag in a gesture said to record the "soul of the nation" signifying the presence and steadfastness of a people standing for freedom and democracy.
The flag has represented us in war but it has also represented us in our achievements, like when the astronauts landed on the moon in July 1969. One of the first things they did was to plant our flag on the barren and dusty surface as a triumph of American technology, determination, and ingenuity.
At the Olympics American athletes bear the flag with pride in the opening and closing ceremonies. They wear it on their uniforms and, when they win medals, our flag is hoisted on high for all to see.
Our ships and planes all traverse the world with the flag on their sterns and even outboard motor boats on our inland lakes sport it. During the great European migrations of the early 20th century immigrants arriving in the New York harbor waved their flags, like the babushka woman with her baby. "Look at the flag," she seems to tell her baby. "We are Americans, now."
Our flag has been there in difficult times, too, like when it lay on President John F. Kennedy's coffin as six white horses pulled the caisson bearing it through the streets of Washington. Or when the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq—came home. So it wasn't surprising that on the saddest day of our history, September 11, 2001, people all over the country responded by displaying American flags on their houses, cars, clothes, motorcycle helmets, and gym shoes. Cities decorated their main streets with flags. Billboards displayed scenes with the flag, including one with the little girl sitting on her father's shoulders waving her flag at a candlelight vigil. The flag then became something to hold on to in the midst of our shock and sorrow. Such actions signified to the hijackers and to the world that "our flag was indeed still there."
Today, however, the flag has taken on a new meaning. Outside of the country it has become a banner for violence, domination, torture, and intimidation. At home it has become a symbol of exclusion. We are truly losing ourselves as Americans and as we destroy our democracy we are also tearing our beloved flag into shreds. Will we ever see a day when we are united again around those beautiful stars and stripes?
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.