Colin Kaepernick, 9/11 and Patriotism

By Richard Harwood

The juxtaposition of Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem and the 15th anniversary of 9/11 puts front and center the issue of patriotism. Talk radio, newspaper opinion pieces and television programs have all been consumed by both of these events. But it’s easy to lose sight of their full meaning; their coincidence yesterday helps us to hold them side-by-side and to consider exactly what is patriotism, and what does it afford us.

9/11 is always a difficult day for me. Fifteen years ago, I watched on television as hijacked planes hit The World Trade Towers and I became worried sick about the plight of my college buddy, Frank Reisman who was at the time working for Cantor Fitzgerald. Was he at work that day? Was he in the building? Could he have survived the impact of the plane? Soon, the answers were clear: Frank’s life had been taken. We lost him.

Just hours later, members of Congress from both political parties gathered on the steps of Congress to sing “God Bless America.” In the days and months to follow, patriotic hymns were sung at ballgames. People displayed flag decals on their cars. It seemed that we were one nation.

Of course, such unity can feel good after such a massive shock to our body politic. But we must not mistake such unity as the mere definition of patriotism. In 2003, not long after 9/11, I gave a speech about the meaning of patriotism, which was later published in the National Civic Review. In the speech I said:

For some in our nation, the word patriotism is a word riddled with a history of exclusion, suggesting to them that the American Dream is only for some people and not others. In times of national or community struggle, patriotism can come to mean demanding lockstep agreement, leading to a kind of myopic closed-mindedness. It can give us license to believe that anyone different from ourselves is not welcomed. We can come to view people as unpatriotic when they choose not to display the flag or a decal on their car, or choose not to sing the words to “God Bless America” at a ballgame... And I certainly do not mean the kind of patriotism that bigots and hate groups and so-called militia in this country have put forth, who have hijacked the term, angling to wrap themselves in the stars and stripes of our flag. 

Instead, to me, patriotism is about “a devotion to—a love of—country.” It springs forth from something quite beautiful—the possibility that we in this nation can move ever closer to a more perfect union. It is the possibility of what we can create together, through a common enterprise.

The story of improvement, of struggle, is central to the American experience. Time and again, we have found the courage to recognize the stains on our shared history, and have sought to redirect our course—to find a more inclusive, hopeful path. That work continues.

Genuine devotion for a partner, a child or, yes, a nation, is rooted in a sense of love so deep that it calls us to search for what is good and right, especially when such a path is the hardest to walk. It suggests that we each possess moral agency—the ability to help impact the course of our nation. Indeed, patriotism reminds us of our deepest aspirations for this nation: who we are, and who we can become.

Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players have assumed one posture of patriotism. Like so many Americans before them, they seek to make a more perfect union. This doesn’t mean that I have to like what they have done. But I should listen, I should be open-minded, I should engage.

Just yesterday I ran in the Mount Vernon Patriot race along with over 2,000 other runners. Before the race began, numerous speakers spoke about the fact that we must never forget 9/11, and that we always must honor those who protect us. I stood tall during the playing of the national anthem, and as I did tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered Frank and as my heart filled with my love for this nation. But my strong sense of devotion also tells me that I must hear those who kneel or turn away at this moment and understand their own devotion to this land.