Loyalty is a curious concept. I don’t mean loyalty to one’s family or friends or — to a more guarded extent in these economically indiscriminate days — to one’s employer. That sort of loyalty isn’t complicated. It’s trust and dependability. You’re either loyal or you’re not, no matter how much you may deceive yourself. But what about loyalty to one’s country? The answer only seems straight forward.
A letter from a friend in Hong Kong forced me to confront the issue the other day. “I remember when I went up to Beijing last year for the first time,” he wrote, “one of my Mainland friends joked that I’m ‘stateless’ because I don’t fully identify with the U.S., Hong Kong, or China. Even though he was saying it in jest, I was struck by his words. Yes, I am ‘stateless’ because I don’t feel 100 percent American, Hong Konger, or Mainlander. I’ll always take a piece of my New York upbringing with me wherever I go; you can’t just dismiss a quarter century of living there as if it never happened. If the U.S. and China ever get into a war (and that’s not farfetched), people like me will suffer. To whom am I supposed to declare my loyalty?”
I’ve thought about the question myself, being in an even more precarious situation than my friend from Hong Kong. Should a devastating terrorist attack occur in the United States (a nuclear bomb, say, or a series of massive urban attacks day after day) it’s not at all far-fetched that the government will indiscriminately round up Arab Americans as security risks, whether they have citizenship or not (I have mine) — not because the government did so with Japanese-Americans during World War II, but because it already did so with thousands of loyal, law-abiding Arab-Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. As with the internment of Japanese in World War II, few voices spoke up against the round-up of Arab-Americans.
It may have been the patriotic thing to do to keep quiet about it. It certainly wasn’t the loyal thing to do. Those who spoke up, the American Civil Liberties Union and a ridiculously small number of newspapers and magazines among them, were the ones being loyal to the rights and principles the government was befouling, and that blind patriots were condoning. John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General at the time, has looked like a hero on a couple of recent occasions as stories of him standing up to rank lawbreaking by the Bush administration have trickled out. But let’s not forget the Ashcroft of December 2001 who framed dissent as disloyalty: “To those … who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” he told a Senate committee, “my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”
Evil isn’t only Arab terrorism. It’s also American repression, at home and abroad. To speak up against terrorism is the easy part. It requires no investment more than words, and for every American since 2001 it required fewer taxes, too. Military families who’ve paid the heaviest price aside, patriotism has never been so cheap, so self-deceiving and, in retrospect, so wasted, considering the consequences.
So my Hong Kong friend’s question is perhaps easier to answer than it seems if one is willing to look at it from a different angle than the merely political. I have not one iota of loyalty toward my native Lebanon now anymore than I do toward Zambia. I still have a great love for Lebanon, and a greater love for the United States. But all those things are irrelevant in time of war, when only immediate fears and anxieties dominate, as do ambient acts or talk of dehumanization. If you think I’m exaggerating, wait until the next attacks. What matters most at that point isn’t such things as loyalty to country, which I think is an artificial and stupid concept that does little more than pump up the herd in brawny words. What matters most, besides loyalty to one’s own, is being loyal to the moral, the civilized and the humane — to those ethical responsibilities that are so rapidly victimized and denigrated in war, under cover of flag-waving.
Patriotism in those cases becomes loyalty’s executioner. And it has. Five years after the early follies of 2001 at home and many more since at home and abroad, we’re a weaker nation, more divided, infinitely less respected than in 2001, infinitely less worthy of 1776. Memorial Day indeed — for what’s being lost, and for loyalties fearfully unspoken.