I'm reposting this from a forum where I wrote it in response to a posting of this NPR essay by Frank Miller:
Sadly I think Miller had the right of it before the attacks. It is about the ideas. Strip the United States of the ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, and I will have no attachment to the flag. To the extent I currently have some attachment to it, it is because I believe that it still represents those ideas. I don't believe that lines on a map convey some magic value, or that there is some genetic reason why Americans are more valuable than anyone else. What binds us together and gives us value is our shared belief in concepts about justice, liberty, and equality, government and social institutions; the Enlightenment ideals of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison. When those concepts take a back seat to the flag and patriotism, we have lost something important, and become less than we were.
A nation is the wrong scope in which to view Franklin's hang together/hang separately quote. Our world has gone global. There is no country that can close off the world or effectively protect itself from what happens outside it. It was not a nation state that attacked us, nor will a lone nation state protect us. Globalized business, fueled by multinational corporations, modern transportation, and electronic communications, has limited the role of the nation state in trade and economics, and terrorism has done the same for security and violence. For there is now no border and no army that can stop violence. Violence and instability can spread by interpersonal networks, and even by the simple conveyance of ideas and ideals.
For better or worse, Mankind is in this together, and together we will succeed or together we will fail. We can choose between global brotherhood and global chaos. The more borders we erect, the more boundaries we create, the more sides we choose and groups we vilify, the more separate we see ourselves from others in our minds and in reality, the less the secure our civilization will be. Because our civilization is those ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, and we will not spread them by building walls, and they will not take hold at the point of a gun, nor can we even protect those ideals in our own nation when we put that nation before them.
Our ideals are our civilization and also its most powerful weapons. The shrinking of the world, its growing interdependence and interconnectedness grants us an overpowering advantage. When given a fair chance those ideals will triumph (and always have) because they represent the best products of Mankind's unique ability to rationally reflect upon his own place in the world. They are not the result of a particular culture or historical heritage, but of the essence of what divides Man from the beasts. And when they spread to another people or another corner of the globe, we have won the most decisive victory possible, because they are now us.
Patriotism to a nation state will not spread our ideals, but it can blind us to our kinship and our shared interests and shared fate with those outside our border. When we choose to cheer for our team rather than our ideals we not only fail to spread those ideals, but we make them unpalatable to anyone on another team. Even the most appealing ideals can be poisonous when packaged in arrogance, pride, and inequity.
There is yet a place for nations and for force of arms. There are threats to be countered, villains to be neutralized. But the state must be an instrument of our ideals, and not the reverse. The state serves our will, and, if our civilization is to endure, we must serve our shared ideals. There is indeed something precious in our civilization, and indeed something perishable. It is not vulnerable to bombs and missiles, but it is vulnerable to our own disloyalty. Terrorism is not a threat to us because it sheds our blood, but because it can cause us to forget who we are and what we hold dear.