On my way to the subway, I encounter many peers wearing the now infamous KILL BIN LADEN t-shirt. They are large, beer laden men. #1: Fuckin’ A. Fucking, somebody said, "That shirt’s sick." #2: I’ll show them what’s sick. Probably a gay. Or a chick! #1: Yeah, I think it was a chick. Fuckin’ send them to Af-gan-ee-stan, see how sick it is. #3: Fuckin’ torture ‘em to death, see how sick it is.

I went to watch the Orioles beat the Yankees last night, and there were spontaneous chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" And it was weird, but not as weird as J.R. of Painted Land‘s remarkable trip to beautiful Fenway Park on Thursday.

On my way to the subway, I encounter many peers wearing the now infamous KILL BIN LADEN t-shirt. They are large, beer laden men. #1: Fuckin’ A. Fucking, somebody said, "That shirt’s sick." #2: I’ll show them what’s sick. Probably a gay. Or a chick! #1: Yeah, I think it was a chick. Fuckin’ send them to Af-gan-ee-stan, see how sick it is. #3: Fuckin’ torture ‘em to death, see how sick it is.

People use the flag to mean a lot of different things — sympathy for the victims of 9/11, solidarity with other Americans, support for the government as it attempts to deal with the aftermath. These are all good things. But the flag also gets used by a lot of people that I would lump in with the Jumping Jimmy Jingos, to use Lileks’s admirable phrase. As I am, I suppose, one of the people that Lileks is railing against, let me see if I can get to what I see as the heart of the matter. The flip side of that patriotic zeal is the bloodlust and hate that so often seem to come along for the ride.

To Bush’s immense credit, he has spoken out against the surge of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab (and, in at least one incident that I found particularly heartbreaking, anti-Sikh) violence and rhetoric. But when flags start appearing en masse, it’s usually because of some sort of national crisis is going on, and it’s usually just a short step for many people between that kind of unity and xenophobia.

I love the flag, and I love America. But my America, the one I love, doesn’t involve cheering for a man’s death — even a monster like Bin Laden’s — the way I might chant "Ov-er-ra-ted" at a ballgame. Life and death shouldn’t reduce to sport like that. But that seems to be what many people use the flag as a symbol for: us and them, good and evil, love it or leave it. And it’s a shame, because the flag shouldn’t be sullied like that. To the extent that it means all things to all people, of course, the flag isn’t sullied, but I wish more sentiments I could wholeheartedly support would attatch themselves to the flag. And I suppose it’s up to people like me to make that happen.

So maybe I’d like a little more flagwaving from the people I agree with, and a little less fingerpointing. I wish that more leftists were willing to acknowledge that, for all the bad things America has done and will do, there is a reason for our grief and our anger. (I’m here specifically thinking of the Chomsky article that’s been floating around.) Speaking truth to power is a great thing, as much as Andrew Sullivan might decry the "decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts" which "may well mount what amounts to a fifth column," but when I read someone like Boots Riley of the Coup talking, I wonder if he’s aware of how badly he comes off. (And people like Sullivan are, of course, using this incident as an opportunity to get critics of American foreign policy to shut up, so I’m sure a number of people with more nuanced but still critical views have been cowed into silence.)

I think questions raised about American foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 — ones which aren’t preaching to the choir, at least — need to be phrased in such a way that they don’t seem to be blaming America for 9/11. We’ve done a lot of truly dreadful things in the past, but until now no one has responded by killing five thousand office workers. Waco and Ruby Ridge might have prompted us to rethink the way our federal law enforcement agencies operate, but only in a few sick minds did it lead to the response of blowing up an office building. Cuban exiles have a history of using bombs in their battle against Castro, but none of them have ever thought of driving a jet into downtown Havana.

So what we need to ask ourselves is not "What did we do to deserve this?" We didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this (and that includes civilian targets of American attacks in non-war situations). Absolutely nothing America has done justifies that sort of attack, because nothing justifies it. What we need to say is "How can we prevent these attacks from happening in the future?" Some of that may be as simple as ramping up our security procedures. Some may be better monitoring of terror organizations. Some may be a change in our national policy; although I agree that we can’t simply plan with preventing terror strikes as a guiding principle, I worry that we’re simply going to be hardened in our course and not use this as a chance to rethink what I consider some very troubling aspects of foreign policy.

And some of it is going to involve military strikes on an organization that has proven itself willing and able to carry out attacks on innocents — in America, and before in Kenya and Tanzania. We are afraid. We grieve. We are angry. But it saddens me that some people will rejoice; war might bring a terrible joy, but it is terrible. If we act, we should accept this as a necessity and a burden and not something to be celebrated. Did people sit up and cheer that we were going to war in WWII? I don’t think so, because they remembered World War I. They remembered that in a real war, a protracted and bloody war (which this may not yet prove to be), people die. Soldiers from Detroit and Houston and Fresno and little towns in West Virginia die. In a real war, thousands of American soldiers die. My grandparents and their generation could look at the crumpled remains of the Arizona and know that they were right, but when you cheer for war as an end in itself, you’re cheering for the deaths of your fellow Americans that the country might remain a little safer and a little more free. That’s an awesome and terrible thing. The people who chant "Kill Bin Laden" the way they might chant "Let’s go Red Sox" might wear the flag, but they don’t wear my flag.