As reporters go, Seymour Hersh is not only famous but also pretty darn reliable. He won a Pulitzer Prize during the Vietnam War. He broke the story of the My Lai massacre. When he writes, people listen.
Recently, he and I were on a radio show together. I asked him about his latest piece for the New Yorker in which he reported that the first real U.S. commando effort in Afghanistan had gone badly and that the Taliban — thanks partly to an ill-advised, overly noisy U.S. effort — had fired upon a dozen of our elite soldiers, seriously wounding several of them.
The government has denied this, “but it was a debacle,” Hersh said.
He did not say it with malice. He did not say it with glee. He said it grimly, a reporter reciting the facts he had gathered.
No sooner had he hung up than someone called in to react.
“That man is un-American! He should never be allowed on the air!”
Signs of the times
Meanwhile, in Houston, a radio station has been playing a parody song called “Bend Over, Bin Laden.” It suggests Osama bin Laden “get on his camel” and prepare to be, well, assaulted on a bad flank, so to speak.
This same radio station raised nearly $20,000 from this song. The purpose? To “adopt” a bomb.
Oddly, no one has called in to label this “un-American.”
In San Francisco, a high-rise office building has covered nine stories with a giant vinyl flag. Furniture stores announce a “red, white and blue” sale.
Meanwhile, in upstate New York, a man reportedly tried to run a down a Pakistani pedestrian with his car.
“I am doing this for my country!” he screamed.
The dictionary definition of patriotism is “devoted love, support and defense of one’s country.”
It says nothing about automatic rage or throwing away your dignity. A UCLA professor recently said, “Patriotism has historically served as a benign umbrella for angry people.”
Well, Lord knows we had enough angry wackos in this country before Sept. 11. That some of them now may be admired because they wave a flag is, frankly, a little scary.
Doing the right things
Now, understand, I am glad this nation is surging with patriotism. I feel it. You feel it. We don’t often appreciate our freedoms and luxuries. So I applaud our new dedication.
But being patriotic, to me (and by his speech Thursday night, President Bush agrees), also means supporting good things inside this country — volunteering, mentoring, doing charity work — not just armchair quarterbacking a war.
It’s worth noting that the people usually calling the loudest for bombs are either people sitting on a couch or TV pundits who have a book to sell.
Neither type will come close to risking a fingernail in battle. But they sure have vocal cords.
And some are in use right now, spewing blind hatred or saying folks like Seymour Hersh are “un-American.” They couldn’t be more wrong. Aren’t we mature enough to handle the facts? Don’t we want our leaders, above all, to be honest with us?
Dirty ditties about Osama bin Laden may amuse. But let’s not forget the following:
It is not patriotic to suppress the truth. That’s what bin Laden does.
It is not patriotic to run over neighbors who look different from you. That is how Islamic radicals behave.
It is not patriotic to worship death and destruction, to adopt bombs, to get itchy for some good old nuclear warfare. That is what we’re trying to stop our enemies from doing.
Patriotism has never been a synonym for “loud” or “obnoxious” or “dismissive” or even “right wing.” Not unless you consider John F. Kennedy a traitor.
To love, support and defend one’s country. It is a beautiful definition. But colors alone do not make you worthy. And telling a countryman to shut up if you don’t like the honest news he’s bringing does not honor the spirit of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. It insults it.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.