At 8:45 AM on September 11, my 14-year-old son stood on the fourth floor at Stuyvesant High School, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and watched the second hijacked plane hit one of the Twin Towers. When the first tower collapsed, the lights went out in Stuyvesant; the school shook. My son spent a terrifying half-hour in his classroom as the street outside filled with ash and debris. Evacuated, he and his classmates had to run for their liveswhile I desperately looked for him.
My son said little when he finally arrived home that day. But he did take a stand. He removed the curtains from one of our apartment windows and draped it with a large American flag.
The leftist writer Katha Pollitt's daughter, like my son a Stuyvesant student, also concluded that the best response to September 11's infamy was to show the flag. But she got a determined parental veto. In her Nation column, Pollitt wrote of instructing her daughter that "the flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war." After vigorously debating the flag's real meaning, the two reached a compromise. Pollitt's daughter could buy an American flag with her own money and hang itbut only in her bedroom. "That's hers," Pollitt wrote, "but the living room is off-limits."
Pollitt's column reminded me why I had long ago walked away from "the Movement." Like Pollitt today, I once equated the flag with jingoism, vengeance, and war and thought myself an internationalist. As a journalist and activist in the 1960s and early 70s, I worked to undermine American institutions, which I believed sowed injustice around the world. In Ramparts, I exposed the CIA's infiltration of the National Student Association. At the Vietnam War's height in 1968, I even attended a meeting in Czechoslovakia that brought together U.S. antiwar activists, representatives of the North Vietnamese government, and the Viet Cong. After pleasantly boating down the Danube together, we sat around planning how to undercut support for the war in the U.S.
But for the technicality of Vietnam being an "undeclared" war, we were committing treason. Our excuse was that our so-called enemy meant the American people no harm and posed no real threat to U.S. security interests. All the Vietnamese wanted, we thought, was a chance to build their own decent society, free from foreign domination.
It soon became clear how mistaken we were. After the U.S. withdrew from Indochina, the Communists committed unimaginable atrocities against their own people, just as some war supporters had warned; dominoes did fall. America never became the repressive regime that we feared but instead remained the world's most tolerant country.
I always thought the New Left should have declared victory and then embraced America and its democratic institutions, claiming that the country was a better place thanks to our efforts. An unpopular war had ended; racism was in full retreat; barriers to women had fallen; civil liberties were expanding. Some of us did reassess our positions; a few even found ourselves in the pages of this magazine.
Most of my ex-New Left comrades, though, wouldn't let go. Blaming America First became a talisman against facing the horrors that the revolutionary regimes they had collaborated with had inflicted on millions of defenseless people. America's openness allowed the luxury of radical opposition without any real consequences. Indeed, many unrepentant sixties radicals rose to positions of influence.
The September 11 attacks brought the radical Left up against an acute political dilemma. Was this not the time to put aside differences and support the effort to eradicate this mortal threat to the only civilization that even bothers to discuss the Left's concerns? To their credit, some on the Left grasped what was at stake. Christopher Hitchens, for one, identified the enemy as "fascism with an Islamic face." But most of the radical Left had no second thoughts about its deeply ingrained anti-Americanism.
If Mohamed Atta had been off target by just 100 yards, my son and Pollitt's daughter might have been among the first victims. Yet just at this moment, Pollitt decided that patriotic sentiments were "off-limits" in her home and that her daughter needed further instruction on America's eternal sins. To paraphrase their patron saint, Pollitt and her fellow radicals have been repeating their mistakes of the sixties, first as tragedy, now as farce.