Cosmetic patriotism

A little more than two weeks after the events of Sept. 11, I was watching one of the morning news programs.

In an interview, South Dakota Gov. William Janklow was explaining why he had decided to add National Guard troops at the state’s airports for security. The governor, not one to mince words, apparently, said, in essence, that when it comes to war, we should be shooting first and asking questions later.

I found myself cheering him on until I wondered what would happen if, for some reason, I turned out to be one of those people the National Guard or any law enforcement official decided to question later.

Acting reflexively isn’t unusual in the wake of the kinds of scenes and accounts we’ve witnessed over and over since the Pearl Harbor of our time unfolded before us. We are all searching for something that will make things right, to help those who are suffering, including ourselves.

We ask our clergy, our political leaders, academics and each other for answers. We light candles, observe moments of silence and send money to the affected. Not surprisingly, none of those efforts seems to be quite enough.

We put flags in our windows, lash them to our car antennas, show them proudly in our places of businesses and our homes.

I’m wondering if we’ll be able to convert our swelling fervor for making the symbolic gestures into the less emotional, yet no less necessary work of citizenship. Or will our zeal fade into a cosmetic patriotism that lacks a commitment to citizenship?

Showing our patriotism comes naturally and, in a lot of cases, easily. Demonstrating citizenship, on the other hand, takes a little more patience, thought and even planning. We’ll have to make time to go to the polls to vote, attend a local government meeting or read the newspaper to make some sense of what’s going on around us.

Over the long haul, will we be able to resist the temptation to sacrifice our civil liberties because we are too fearful of the cost of defending them? Are we willing to put some time and effort into our own communities by engaging in civic activities, like supporting our fire departments, picking up litter in public places, working in food pantries or volunteering in hospitals, schools or libraries?

Will we be willing to do the simple things that matter? Do we care enough about each other to do what is necessary to avoid having to see a sign in a construction zone that says, ”Drive Carefully. My Mommy Died Here”? Finally, perhaps most important, will we be able to tolerate the opinions of others who may propose an idea that doesn’t square with our own?

If I sound sanctimonious, believe me, I’m as culpable as anyone else when it comes to taking our liberties and our blessings for granted. If anything good comes out of all of the anguish, perhaps it will be a lasting appreciation for what it takes to remain free.

Preserving liberty, as we have heard so often, requires eternal vigilance. I hope we’re up to the task. Ray Marano ([email protected]), who never will take his freedom for granted again, is senior editor of SBN Magazine.