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There's a price to pay for American pride

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 13, 2002


The man didn't like jeans. Nor did he care for the music the young people who wore them listened to. So for him, his radical pronouncement must have seemed patriotic.

"We could use another Hitler," he said.

The man was not so much offended by the aesthetics of jeans and the music. No one living in a country that's fond of lederhosen and oompah music can afford a delicate palate for fashion or music.

He was upset because young Germans chose to wear them and listen to it. That signaled to him that German people were losing their identity, becoming too Americanized. They needed an infusion of national pride. He believed another Hitler or another Hitlerlike leader could be the catalyst.

In more than five years living there through the early '80s, I heard that sentiment expressed many times, not always by older Germans resenting the dilution of traditions by their children. Sometimes it was expressed by those young Germans wearing jeans and listening to American music.

Usually it was said in connection with the influx of Turks and the array of peoples many Germans called Gypsies.

Forgotten apparently were the consequences of the nationalistic pride Hitler inspired. Sublimated apparently was the grim reality that Hitler made Germans feel good about themselves largely by making them feel bad about everybody else. Germans embodied everything virtuous; everyone else was a mutation of it -- and a threat to their purity.

That spirit was an accomplice to one of history's most shameful chapters.

I've heard that man's voice many times since the tragedy of 9/11. The difference is that the words are not spoken in German and don't disparage Turks and Gypsies. They are spoken in English and take potshots at Middle Eastern store owners and doctors, and come from people who proclaim they're proud to be Americans.

We would do well to remember the excesses of the perverse spirit the Germans called national pride. Remembering might help us avoid them.

We cannot rest on the oft spoken belief that America is married to the moral high ground and will deploy its military might only in just causes. That was the belief of many who followed orders straight to Nuremberg.

If we are so married to the moral high ground, why is so much of the rest of the world sleeping with one eye open? Why does China keep glancing over its shoulder? Why is North Korea quaking? Why is Saddam Hussein groaning "Here we go again?"

If we're so married to the moral high ground, why do we refuse to submit our military to the jurisdiction of the world court to which we insist other nations answer?

Because we're bigger than most of those other nations? Because we're stronger? Because we're America and what we do is right no matter what the rest of the world thinks?

Is that how, in the months following the destruction of the World Trade Center, we went from deploying our military on the specific mission of finding those responsible for the attack to the swaggering posture of the generic While we're over here?

The metamorphosis of military targets happened so quickly, the sequence resembles an anagram. The terrorists responsible became Osama Bin Laden; Bin Laden became the Taliban; the Taliban became terrorists in general; and terrorists in general became a list of evil nations, and of course, Iraq and its leader head that list.

Americans, in their fervor to avenge the attack on the twin towers -- a fervor many mistake for patriotism -- applauded every move, mostly without question, not even the pivotal ones: Have we exacted justice on those responsible for destroying the WTC? Are we safer from terrorism than we were before the attack?

Or have we increased the world's pool of terrorists with our heavy-handed military response? Have we increased the volatility of world relations?

The mayor of Hiroshima said so on the anniversary of that city's nuclear destruction. The Saudis think so as they try to wash their hands of involvement in an attack on Iraq. Many of America's allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia are criticizing President Bush's apparent preparations to invade Iraq.

Most of the world is talking in gentle tones, trying not to excite the powerful giant.

In the view of the world, America is not having one of its prouder moments.

Yet, nationalistic pride is at a peak.

There should be an alarm ringing in each of our ears. That is a familiar combination.

Now should be the time when our actions receive the greatest scrutiny, the time that each of us asks ourselves if we are flexing our military might in just causes. Now should be the time that we take extra care that our emotions and our justifiable outrage and desire for justice doesn't drive us in rash, wrong directions.

Yet this has notably been a time of discomfiting silence, save for the applause.

Alarms should be ringing.

But they're not. The rest of the world occasionally taps us on the shoulder, but so gently we hardly notice, or so ambiguously that we interpret it as a slap on the back.

That's the treatment you get when you're the biggest, baddest kid on the playground. Besides, it doesn't matter what the rest of the world is saying.

We're America. We don't have to answer to anyone.

The Germans didn't either. Until Nuremberg.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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