Things were still very up in the air when my high school met for the first time after 9/11. Our building, only three blocks from Ground Zero, was being used as a command center for the rescue effort and we had been relocated to Brooklyn. The administration was careful not to say anything too specific about our circumstances since nobody was really sure what, specifically, they were, so the meeting's tone was confused and meandering. The final speech was from our student body president and, as he wrapped up his talk, he asked us all to rise, then did something unusual. He placed his hand over his heart and began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the New York City public schools, we generally stop reciting the Pledge in elementary school and never revisit it. Before that high school meeting, in fact, I had not heard the Pledge recited since first grade. Back then I got in trouble for not saying "under God" - it was a source of great controversy at my supposedly secular public school. My mother had to confirm with my teacher that we did not, in fact, believe in God and that she had allowed me the privilege of skipping that line.
After 9/11, however, many schools in New York and elsewhere reinstated the practice of reciting the Pledge every day; ours was no different. That mid-September meeting was the first of many days that we were asked to rise and place our hand over our hearts. As a nation, we were all yearning for something to create a feeling of national unity. Who needed that feeling more than the high school students who had run from the Twin Towers' collapse days earlier?
While the desire for unity was certainly something I shared, by the week after the attacks things already felt like they were in a tailspin. The Bush administration was hard at work propagating their false binaries, the "you're either with us or against us" talk (though Bush would not speak those exact words until November). I certainly wasn't against us - after all, I was us -- but I did not want to be "with us" in a nation with heedlessly war-mongering politicians, an administration propagating rampant, directionless fear, and a media filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In that first post 9/11 meeting, of course, I did not yet know just how egregiously the government would lie to us in the coming months. I had no idea how many people would become sick or even die as a direct result of irresponsible government decisions made during the clean-up, not to mention the multiple military adventures abroad. I was unaware of how my health and that of my classmates would be impacted by our quick return to a contaminated building in lower Manhattan as fires continued to burn only blocks away and the debris from Ground Zero was trucked to a barge moored next door. I had no idea how difficult it would be to get anyone in a position of leadership at that time to admit to what had been done. But still, my world had been shattered; my school was underneath a layer of toxic dust; my nation was willingly allowing itself to be turned into a fortress state based on pervasive fear; I simply did not know what kind of nation I was pledging allegiance to.
So as our student body president began to recite that famous pledge, joined by most of the room, I sat down. I was, in fact, the only one in a completely full auditorium of some 3000 to sit down. I got a lot of nasty looks, to be sure. A teacher nearby asked what I was doing and, to my surprise, I replied, "I don't pledge."
I may have been the only person to sit down during the recitation of the Pledge in that time of great national tragedy. By the end the school year, however, I was not the only person to make a statement by staying seated.
A sense of unease started to slowly grow in the student body after Stuyvesant's return to its lower Manhattan home on October 9th. It grew as we realized that we were being used as actors in a propaganda theater, returned swiftly to an unsafe environment so that lower Manhattan would "look normal" again. It grew as we realized that a war was about to be waged in our name. It grew as we realized that, despite the outpouring of support from schools across the nation, we were on our own down in lower Manhattan.
At first, the "sitters" were questioned by teachers and administrators. As our disenchantment grew, however, much of my class began to sit during the pledge. In schools nationwide, the Pledge may have been going on as usual but, in the Ground Zero school, it became the center of a brewing protest. Some students began to sit even if they were standing as the Pledge began, collapsing in the hallways as soon as the recitation started. By the end of the year, standing for the Pledge made as much - or more -- of a statement than sitting did.
I have no doubt that expressions of unthinking patriotism will abound around the 9/11 anniversary. It's understandable that, in commemorating this horrific event, Americans will want to regain the sense of unity we had then, and will rely on time-tested symbols like the Pledge and the flag to feel connected to the rest of nation. But if this coming anniversary is used as an opportunity to revisit the false binary set up by the Bush administration to justify the attack on Iraq, the "with us or against us" talk that, after 9/11, became the arbiter of patriotism, then it will overshadow the important issues we still face as a result of the attacks.
A lot of media outlets are asking their readers or viewers for accounts of what changed about America on 9/11. So, here goes. For me, what changed was the definition of patriotism. 9/11 was the beginning of a stream of off-kilter "America first" thinking that ignored the realities of US policy in the wake of the attacks. Even since 2006, when I started StuyHealth, a group that advocates for health monitoring and treatment for student 9/11 victims, I have been told by "patriots" that it was in bad taste to insert public school students into a discussion where only the families of those killed in the attack belonged. Later, I was told that it was only first responders who deserved inclusion, not the students who went to school next to "the pit" as the recovery work continued. Many of these reactions came from 9/11 victims themselves. I suspect it was because they harbored a tremendous sense of guilt about asking for anything, in part because even suggesting you were wronged by your own government would be considered tantamount to "siding with the terrorists." Despite the calls of "Never Forget," it was a hard fought battle that lasted until the end of 2010 to get a comprehensive 9/11 health bill through the Congress. At this 10th anniversary of the attack, thousands of American troops are still in harm's way in the Middle East and Afghanistan. VA facilities are still in danger of being stripped of funding. Most disturbingly, our 9/11 heroes must have their names checked against the terrorist watch list in order to receive medical treatment at the 9/11 health clinics. We have forgotten a lot of people in the last ten years. The fact that none of these people will be included in the official New York City memorial ceremony on 9/11 is a disturbing reminder that we may well carry on forgetting them in the future as well.
This year, if we insist on pledging allegiance to the flag, we must also be willing to pledge allegiance to our own citizens and the values upon which this country was founded, not the ways in which we have changed for the worst. If the plight of sick first responders, students, and community members, of veterans at home, or of Iraqi children growing up in a war zone are whitewashed by calls for symbolic unity as we memorialize those lost in the 9/11 attacks, the pledges of allegiance that we will no doubt recite will be meaningless, at best.