Display of American Flag Stirs Campus Debate

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Laura K. Cobb

Many Houses have chosen to display American flags in the wake of last week's tragedy.

Red, white and blue are joining crimson as the colors of Harvard’s campus, as students turn to patriotism in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks.

America’s colors have become ubiquitous on campus, as University students and Boston locals have followed a national lead in turning to patriotism as a coping mechanism.

The stars and stripes can be seen everywhere, from the ribbons on the lapels of dining hall workers to the dashboards of cars darting through the Square.

Large flags are on display at Quincy, Cabot, Pforzheimer and Leverett Houses, and House-wide movements to display flags have begun.

This widespread patriotic reaction has brought fear to some, comfort to others—and has prompted debate in an unlikely place.

On Thursday, Congress passed a resolution that “in response to the terrorist attacks... U.S. citizens should join together to defend and honor the Nation and its symbols of strength” and that people are “encouraged to display the flag...to remember those individuals who have been lost and to show the solidarity, resolve and strength of the nation.”

The Quincy House Open e-mail list—usually a marketplace for futons and books—exploded this weekend with a debate on patriotism and nationalism, retaliation and peace. List subscribers got nearly 40 e-mails this week with subject headings such as “American flag,” “Worried about what the flag means, I’ll tell you,” and “Crimes against Humanity...NOT war...write to Congress!”

The debate started when Rahul Rohatgi ’03 sent out a plea late Thursday night for people to honor Washington’s urgings to display the flag.

“I am writing because I urge every one of you who has a small American flag to fly it either out your window if possible, or putty it on to your door,” Rohatgi, a Crimson executive, wrote in an e-mail message.

Rohatgi—who said he considers flag-posting one small positive thing students could do when feeling helpless in the face of tragedy—said the flag is a sign of national unity.

“I’m sure people see it as silly or hollow, but a lot of people died on Tuesday, and [showing the flag] is a symbolic remembrance of that,” Rohatgi said in an interview.

Roman Altshuler ’01—an alum who has not yet been removed from the e-mail list—immediately responded with a plea to Quincy-dwellers not to display the flag.

“A sudden upsurge of patriotism accompanied by national hysteria is being built up by the government and the media for a single purpose: to prepare the public to accept and condone war,” Altshuler wrote in his Friday retort.

An avalanche of e-mails ensued from both old and new House members, arguing that flags stand for “support and solidarity” or a dangerous “us versus them polarization.”

The debate became a forum on the accuracy of media coverage, people’s hopes and fears about military reprisal in the coming days, and patriotism in general.

Eliah Z. Seton ’04 wrote, “Today, and every day until we win this war, our liberty is threatened. Your freedom to write your blasphemous, and frankly, obnoxious e-mails is threatened.”

Taking the position that patriotism can threaten democracy, Nicholas C. Murphy ’02 wrote, “If we let our sorrow and rage blind us, if we begin to sacrifice those things that bind us together as Americans and perhaps more importantly human beings for the sake of retribution, we have compounded the tragedy one hundred fold, for we have then allowed a few murderous zealots to undo in one day what we have worked almost 250 years to build.”

Quincy resident Jenny L. Pegg ‘03 said on the relatively new House Open list she’s “never seen anything quite like” the weekend’s debate.

“ I think the world is a complicated place in which it is hard to tell what the far-reaching consequences of the actions of people might be,” Pegg wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson.

—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at dorgan@fas.harvard.edu.