When I heard the news of Bin-Laden’s death early Monday morning Spanish time, I felt what most Americans probably felt at the news: excitement and relief, knowing that justice had been served to a man who had taken thousands of innocent lives in terrorist attacks around the world.
However, my feelings of relief slowly turned to disappointment as I saw thousands of Americans celebrate like it was the fourth of July outside the White House and at Ground Zero, waving American flags and chanting “USA, USA!” Watching those crowds of ecstatic (oftentimes seemingly tipsy) Americans celebrate death with this outburst of patriotism, I can say I honestly felt embarrassed.
Studying abroad in Spain this year has given me a perspective on American culture that you can only experience from the outside looking in. There are many stereotypes about Americans (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if Americans really only eat junk food or if we’re all religious zealots), but probably the most common stereotype is that Americans are overly patriotic, and brainwashed to be so. While I think our patriotism has probably more to do with tradition than outright brainwashing, I’ve come to realize that it is actually kinda ridiculous.
An eye-opening experience for me was watching the Super Bowl with my Spanish friend Pep, who joined me and some other UCSB students studying abroad in Granada. Pep asked me why we always play the national anthem before every sports game; for him it seemed ridiculous since it’s only American teams competing against each other. I hadn’t thought about it before and couldn’t really answer him, except that it’s just tradition. As Lea Michelle began singing “America the Beautiful” he asked me, “This is the American anthem?”
“Uhh no, it’s just a different song about America,” I replied.
He didn’t bother to ask this time why they played it. Then came Christina Aguilera, who dutifully screwed up the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner” like so many before her. Ironically, nobody at the game nor the other nearby group of Americans seemed to notice, as they proceeded to start a “USA” chant while the military jets flew over the stadium. The other Californians and I couldn’t help but laugh and assured my friend that those kids must be from the South. Eventually Pep left, my Steelers lost and I was left thinking about how the biggest American sporting event of the year is turned into a blatant show of patriotism and even military force.
A different conception:
Spaniards to this day live with the legacy of Francisco Franco, the conservative dictator who won the incredibly bloody Spanish civil war in 1936 and went on to rule for 40 years. The slogan of Franco’s regime was “Todo por la Patria” (Everything for the Fatherland), and can still be found on many buildings of Franco’s old stronghold of Ceuta. Murals glorify the dictator’s victory, portraying him as a saint and Spain’s savior, while the liberals who fought against him in the defense of the Spanish Republic are portrayed as a dehumanized “band of communist reds” and “traitors.”
Many Spaniards are taken aback by patriotism in the United States because for them, it is reminiscent of Franco and his propaganda machine. A good example would be Republican Senator Michelle Bachmann calling for congressional hearings to determine who in congress is “American” and “anti-American.” If a Spanish politician said something like that, they would be labeled a fascist and their political career would be over the next day; yet in the U.S., Bachmann is considered a potential presidential candidate.
Although I don’t think that patriotism in the U.S. is as serious a threat to democracy as many Spaniards do, I do believe that it can be very naive and potentially damaging. We have a responsibility as citizens of the most powerful country in an ever-globalized world to demonstrate that it’s not in fact “us against the world,” which is often how our own patriotism portrays us to others. We need to show that we as a nation want to be a force for good, not violence. Violence should not be celebrated, ever. So please, be relieved that Bin-Laden is gone, but leave your American flag-print cape and suit at home.
Riley Schenck is a third-year political science major studying abroad in Granada, Spain.