As I reached down desperately for my toes, hunched over in a final attempt to stretch before I began a marathon, my eyes fixated on the leg of a man whose calf muscle must’ve been the size of a football turned on its nose. On the back of his calf was a large tattoo designed to look as if his flesh had been ripped off in the shape of a biblical cross, revealing an American flag beneath it. This was the 3rd occasion in a week where I came in contact with a proud display of patriotism, and I was puzzled by how it was making me feel. I didn’t feel united or inspired. I was embarrassed.
As a high school student in the early 2000’s I, like everyone else my age, remember exactly where I was sitting during the attacks of 9/11. I was in Biology class during my Sophomore year of High School. Another faculty member had just come over and whispered something inaudibly to my teacher who turned on the TV’s and watched in horror as the first World Trade Center burned. While I had little understanding in that moment of what had happened or the events’ future significance, I was sensible enough to recoil in disgust when the girl behind me whined “Who cares? They’re just two buildings…”
In the days, weeks, and months that followed I felt that I’d found some sense of purpose and camaraderie with my peers. America stood for freedom and we were willing to die to defend that ideal. For the better part of the past century, brand “America”, felt as though it was meticulously crafted. From the benefits of capitalism to the visuals of Uncle Sam and the American Dream, we bought into an idea about the kind of people we thought we were. We were in this together. And as I stared down that behemoth’s leg at the starting line of my race I realized in that moment, when I felt shame instead of pride, that America had lost itself.
It turns out we fight wars for oil, not justice. We speak on ending racism mostly for political gain or another ‘like’ on a photo. We treasure our freedom as individuals except, paradoxically, when it differs with our own beliefs. I was taught to be weary of people whose words are not consistent with their actions and America has become someone I can’t trust.
Today, America’s Capital is stormed by… Americans. Democracies backslide continues. So while we duke it out over who gets to use what bathroom or ruin family relationships over whether someone needs 6 semi-automatics to hunt quail, I can’t help but feel we’ve missed the forest for the trees. China is trailblazing in Artificial Intelligence, Europe is setting the standard in data protection, Sweden is leading the way with its long-term zero emissions goal, and Australia is having a good time with masks off at the beach having COVID under control.
At last, America may finally be united again. But this time, it will be under a flag that serves as a painful reminder of the opportunity we had and how badly we fucked up.