Yellow Ribbons and Our Sense of Community

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 01, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. The country I walk through these last days of war is fully outfitted in its civilian uniform. Yellow ribbons hang like badges of belonging on everything from trees to storm doors to lapels. American flags line streets and mark homes as if on permanent dress parade.

Ambivalence has gone underground for the duration and we are expected to respond with the unanimity of a trained troop. Those who doubt, those who cannot join the regimental cheering, have felt the chill wind of exclusion, a patriotic form of shunning.

In New Jersey, an Italian basketball player was hounded off the team because he chose not to wear a flag. In Erie, Pennsylvania, the anti-war Benedictine sisters beat out Saddam Hussein to win a radio show's title of ''bad guy'' of the day. In New Hampshire, a man arguing earnestly but civilly about the origins and outcomes of the war was interrupted by a passer-by who threatened to break his face.

Even this short war, with a routed enemy, seems to have chipped away at one of the values Americans hold in common: the right to dissent from what we hold in common.

Just two weeks ago, I sat with Nadine Strossen, the energetic new president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and talked of this. The ACLU was founded in the wake of World War I and she listed for me a few of the domestic casualties of that war.

There was the man arrested for sedition after he cynically told a woman knitting socks that her socks would never get to the troops. There was the minister jailed for reading the Bill of Rights in public. There was the Nebraska legislature that outlawed the teaching of German.

Ms. Strossen, a law professor, knows about wartime dissent from her family history as well. Her maternal grandfather, a conscientious objector to World War I, was publicly ridiculed before a New Jersey courthouse. Her father spent nine months in a German concentration camp for opposing Hitler.

In her own 40 years, she said, ''We have always been in some kind of warlike state -- the cold war, the war on drugs, the war on pornography. It's no coincidence that war speech is used to create the sense of panic that we must give up our rights for something looming.''

So war in the Persian Gulf has filled another set of folders for civil-liberties files. One for soldiers who couldn't get Bibles sent to the gulf. Another for gay and lesbian soldiers. A third for conscientious objectors. A fourth for the Arab-Americans. A fifth for press censorship. A sixth for protestors.

In the past weeks, we are told, war has pulled America up and out of its post-Vietnam depression. But I have often thought the enthusiasm for this fighting came from another place, from a deep longing for a sense of community.

We have just lived through a decade of every-man-for-himself individualism. During the '80s, it often seemed that our nation, our cities, our families were divided into the lowest common denominator. Diversity seemed more like a cause of disintegration than the basic stuff of a melting pot. Against that backdrop, war can give a nation a sense of common purpose.

I have been among those looking for community, hoping to renew a sense of connection. But the war fever that has bound us together also reminds me that not every community is benign, not every piece of common ground is welcoming.

There is a difference between the mutual support of a community and the tyranny of a majority. There is a line of thought that runs from community to patriotism to nationalism to jingoism. When nearly two-thirds of Americans think it is a ''bad thing'' to protest against the war while we are fighting, the price of admission can be silence.

''My impression is that there is more tolerance for dissent than in the past,'' says Nadine Strossen. By historic measures, she may be right. This time there has been no internment. No laws against sedition. No hearings about treasonous speech. Not a single tar-and-feathering.

But as the war ends, in a country decked out in its militant finery, I am struck again by how fragile our value system is. When the yellow ribbons are down, the flags put away, the troops home, we are only held together by the most contradictory of bonds: a common belief that we may differ.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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