May 12, 2002
Oh Say, Can You See the Danger?

Marcie Hershman said no. She was returning home from giving a reading and she was setting off a beep at Logan Airport security. The offending object appeared to be the snap on her jeans. ''Is it all right if I open the snap?'' the security guard asked. And the author of ''Tales of the Master Race,'' ''Safe in America,'' and ''Speak to Me,'' refused.

It wasn't the heightened security she objected to. In fact, she agreed to open the snap herself. Instead, it was the routine assumption that anything - anything - she might be asked to do in the name of that security was justified. ''We need to have a sense of ourselves as individuals with rights safeguarded by the Constitution. If we say yes without thinking to everything we're asked, we give up our rights.''

Flags and patriotic slogans wave at us from billboards and SUVs. But being ''a good American'' today feels more complex than it might have in 1776 or 1941. Hershman and another Boston-area writer, Askia Toure, recently talked about what patriotism means to them in 2002.

In Hershman's novel ''Tales of the Master Race,'' unquestioning compliance chips away at individual conscience. A hausfrau worries that the Jewish members of her ladies' auxiliary won't allow themselves to be ejected from the group without protest. A civil servant is ordered to examine and measure his fellow townspeople slated for execution. A printer appropriates the firm's master copies after his Jewish employer has been taken away. These are clearly not people who have said no.

''When someone asks us to do something we think is wrong, we can say no,'' says Hershman. Not only can, but should.

''My understanding of America is that the intent is not to create an obedient citizenry. What are we being patriotic to? A government that changes every four years? Patriotism and security might not be the same thing. Patriotism and acquiescence might not be the same thing. Patriotism and civic responsibility might not be the same thing.

''We need to think of what we are as a culture, not just militarily,'' she says, pointing to the motto e pluribus unum - out of many, one. We may emphasize the ''one'' in times of national crisis, but the ''many'' reminds us that we are a country built on diversity.

For Askia Toure, patriotism is a word with long and painful roots.

Toure's book ''From the Pyramids to the Projects'' won the American Book Award in 1989. He was honored for lifetime achievement at the recent Cambridge Poetry Awards.

''African Americans have been the most patriotic people in this country,'' Toure says. ''We were patriotic even before we were Americans. We fought in every war, even when we were considered three-fifths of a human being. We were the force that helped Lincoln and the Union defeat the Confederacy, by calling a general strike on the plantations. We worked in this country for [hundreds of years] without receiving pay. What about America's patriotism toward us?''

While Toure expresses sadness over the devastation of Sept. 11, he has questions about the ensuing flag-waving.

''In the US before 9/11 there was not an excessive amount of love and brotherhood among the various ethnic groups. People may say it's a new day for this country, but is it? That would be wonderful, but I have my doubts.

''In Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan and Harlem - in the chocolate cities of this country - we're seeing billions of dollars going overseas while there is devastation of the inner cities, destruction of the public schools, drugs everywhere, massive unemployment within the world's most powerful nation.''

True patriotism, according to Toure, would see reparations paid to the descendants of former slaves that would lift them ''out of third-world conditions and onto a par with white America. That would confirm for us that they believe in patriotism applied to the poor and oppressed in this country.''

For Hershman, patriotism not only allows but requires us to look critically at our country. ''Maybe it's unpatriotic to be blindly obedient. We need to use our minds and our hearts in the spirit of the country.''

This story ran on page 6 of the Boston Globe's City Weekly section on 5/12/2002. © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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