December 7, 2001

Commentary

A True Patriot Is One Who Raises Questions

By Rodolfo Acuña

For the past few weeks, I have been attempting to avoid the controversy around the events of Sept. 11, realizing that navigating a mine field covered by flags is never easy.

But my worst fear is that we won't ask the questions we should ask today until after the body bags begin coming home. As a citizen, I want specific questions answered before we commit ourselves, or our children, to another war.

I do not believe that debating the reasons for a war and the consequences of our actions is unpatriotic. As a father of a teenage daughter and grandfather of three boys sprinting toward draft age, I don't want to find myself in the position of Robert McNamara and his gaggle of hawks who orchestrated the Vietnam War and later said that they had been mistaken.

Unlike so many of today's pro-war voices, I volunteered for a war -- the Korean War. I was old enough (and yet young enough) to remember and identify with the words of the "Sadado Raso" sung by my uncles, cousins and family friends as they went off to World War II:

les probaré que mi raza
sabe morir donde quiera
mañana salgo temprano
al despertar nuevo día
y aquí va otro Mexicano
que va a jugarse la vida,
que se despide cantando:
que viva la patria mía.
(I will prove that my race
knows how to die anywhere
I leave early tomorrow
as the light of day shines
here goes another Mexican
who knows how to gamble his life,
that gives his farewell singing:
long live my country.)

With age and education, I began to reflect on the haunting words of the song and concluded that you do not have to "gamble" your life to be an American. The true patriot is the person who raises questions, and avoids mistakes. The true hero is the person who speaks up against injustice wherever it is.

I envy those in Germany who spoke up against the Holocaust and those here who spoke up against the internment of Japanese Americans. The American heroes for me at the Quakers who spoke up against the genocide of the Native Americans, slavery and the Mexican War and defended peace.

On Sept. 11th, a tragic thing happened. The indiscriminate killing of innocent people is the kind of extremism that I condemned in my own government when it bombed Baghdad. In the 1980s, I raised similar concerns about Osama bin Laden and his ilk when the United States was arming them on the sole criterion that they were anti-communist.

I entered academic because I believe that through reason I could find truth, and that through defining truth solutions could be found to our problems. Truth for me was not waving the flag and accepting the prevalent notions. The truth could be found only through the questioning or testing of assumptions. In examining whether or not the United States should blow up Afganistan, reason tells me that we had better be pretty sure that the people who we are retaliating against are at fault.

I am no fan of the Taliban regime but asking for the evidence against bin Laden before handing him over seems reasonable. We are not above international law, and for us to bully any country to extradite one of its residents without any sort of documentation places us above the law. This kind of John Wayne posturing may be good politics but it is not justice.

Reason also tells me that we have worked very hard to ensure public space for domestic programs to correct inequities. Surely, many domestic programs will suffer the consequences of shifting large portions of our budget to the military. Asking how a blank check to president bush will affect domestic programs is not unpatriotic. If Americans believe that they can afford a massive war and increased military spending along with maintaining our domestic infrastructure, let's talk about it in detail. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

It is the extremist who believes that waving a flag or blowing up people or bullying them can solve our problems. It is the kind of extremism, and the public acceptance of it, that has led to police states.

I, for one, would rather stand on the side of reason than be bullied or stampeded. Democracy requires debate, not the waving of the flag.

Rodolfo Acuna is professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of several books, including "Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles" (Verso, 1996). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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