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American flag belongs to dissenters, too


There were United States flags everywhere: on hatbands, hunting rifles, bows and arrows, slung over shoulders, flopping from waistbands, sewn into shirts. The colors of the U.S. flag were even painted on the face of a Zia Pueblo Indian man.

About 20 men, some in their military fatigues, chanted and drummed as they made their way to the dirt plaza of the small pueblo about 40 minutes northwest of Albuquerque, N.M. It was Christmas Day, the time of the traditional Buffalo dance -- the first held in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Another group, this one of younger men and boys, wore antlered headgear and white moccasins. They leaned forward on short white sticks and became deer. At the center, a young woman in traditional dress and a man with the head of a buffalo danced in a bitter cold wind beneath a blazing sun.

Pueblo dances, those open to the public, were a part of my growing up. My father took us to many of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos for dances on such occasions as a pueblo’s patron saint’s day. Now I was back with friends, facing the strange spectacle of my own tears. Love of country was not an abstraction for these men, many of them veterans. “God bless America. I pray for you, America.” The throaty chant swirled up amid the drumming as the men first appeared on the plaza, the lead dancer bearing a large American flag topped with feathers.

My relationship to this country has been defined by dissent. Disgust with U.S. foreign policy is the emotion that has oiled the wheels of my activism. I came of age not during Vietnam, but during the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. When, in 1987, the United States charged me with conspiracy to smuggle refugees into the country, I used the spotlight to talk about U.S support of Salvadoran death squads. Eight months later a jury found me not guilty on First Amendment grounds, determining I had acted within my rights as a reporter when I accompanied a minister to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he brought in two women from El Salvador. But by then the die was cast. Innocent? Guilty? I was angry.

When I got out of full-time journalism, I joined a group that documents Border Patrol abuses. I went to a zillion college campuses and read from a novel I wrote about the Sanctuary Movement, determined to educate a new generation about our foreign policy -- and the historical necessity of loyal opposition, particularly those acting out of faith traditions. You could say that I am a person who is deeply invested in having opinions.

In the wake of Sept. 11, I felt confused. My first reaction was knee-jerk left: The chickens have come home to roost. Then I took a wild swing to the right. At a peace demonstration I was assailed by politically incorrect fantasies. I imagined myself across the street from the peaceniks, dressed in a burka and holding a sign: Bombs, Not Burkas -- Give War a Chance!

I tried to learn everything I could about the situation in order to form an opinion. I face horror not with bravery, for I am not brave, but with curiosity, which is the true opposite of fear. For days, months after Sept. 11, I drove to the 7-Eleven for The New York Times. An odd intimacy with the world took root: I woke up each morning to the familiar voices at National Public Radio and Democracy Now. When at midnight I ebbed away into sleep, I was carried off by the British accented BBC, the radio beside me on the bed.

Months later, I’m still confused. Creating a just world is always the solution, and the only one. But how to do it quickly and in the wake of an attack?

Is there a way to go about the work, energized by love? I wondered that when tears welled up in my eyes at the pueblo dance. Anger, although normal and necessary, can get old. I had forgotten that I love the flag. I loved it the first time I saw students burn it in protest during the Vietnam War. They happened to be outside my grandmother’s house, which was near the University of New Mexico. Although I was only 10 or 12 at the time, I sensed what an awesome thing the flag was, so invested with meaning that its burning amounted to a kind of sacrifice. The republic for which it stood must have engaged in actions so terrible as to be almost beyond words. The flag in flames was a cry from the gut, a prayer.

I’m not a pacifist. I have always supported the right of an oppressed people, when all else has failed, to take up arms in self-defense. Jesus may have said turn the other cheek but he also said that he came to bring the sword.

Arguing the point seems silly. What matters is that the peace movement has a historic opportunity to articulate a vision. We must be clear about issues such as U.S. addiction to oil, Muslim elites’ oppression of their own, the spiritual roots of violence, globalization and much more. The current issue of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, with its multi-dimensional approach to the current situation, is a must-read for us all.

I’m thinking of purchasing my first flag -- in the form of a bumper sticker. We who form the loyal opposition often forget that the flag belongs to us, too. Besides, it will go well with my other bumper stickers: “Ignore the Environment … It Will Go Away” and “This car brakes for picket lines!”

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002