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Sunday, September 26, 2021

State of Patriotism: From 9/11 Unity to Growing Division

Patriotism has declined to a point where now a majority of American adults are not extremely proud of the United States.

On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, I was driving north on I-295 on the east side of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. As I crested a hill, I saw the U.S. Capitol dome in the distance, which was brightly lit in the morning darkness. The news on the car radio was all about the mysterious disappearance of intern Chandra Levy and her affair with a congressman, and the anticipated return of Michael Jordan to the NBA. I made my exit into then Bolling Air Force Base and flashed my Intelligence Community badge before parking and entering the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). It was day two of a two-week-long introductory class that all new DIA personnel had to take upon assignment. Ironically, my class was supposed to be touring the Pentagon that morning, but as fate would have it the tour was canceled on Monday afternoon due to logistical issues.

At 9 a.m., the class took its morning break, and a small handful of students went to the restroom or to go find a cup of coffee. The projection television was turned on and a live broadcast showed the World Trade Center north tower on fire. We all sat mesmerized looking at the images of black smoke pouring out the tower that contrasted so greatly with a perfectly crystal blue sky. Many wondered how a pilot could not avoid the tower on such a clear morning. The room was predominately Air Force and Army personnel with a handful of civilians, all mostly male. Within minutes, we watched a plane strike the south tower followed by flames, smoke, people, and debris being ejected from the building. After several audible gasps, the room grew strangely quite as many of us tried to grasp what had just occurred. Somewhere in the classroom a lone voice rose: “Get ready, boys…we are going to war.”

Many of us sat transfixed watching the news when another voice said that White House was being evacuated. Someone made a comment that in 15 or 20 years they’ll be making a movie about 9/11 and I sat thinking, 20 years from now, what would the world be like in 20 years? Another voice in the classroom said that the Pentagon had been hit and that we should leave because our DIA building was the tallest building on our side of the Potomac. I stood up and walked across the hall and looked out a third-floor window across the Potomac River at the Pentagon. A wide swath of smoke rose from the opposite side of the Pentagon. A sinking feeling washed over me that the careers and posture of the military and federal government had just forever changed.

As I drove home that early afternoon, I saw countless American flags tied to overpass chain-linked fences and other flags being flown from buildings, homes, and vehicles. I was surprised by this early symbol of solidarity. Across the United States, people experienced 9/11 in many different ways but one thing that shone through it all was a rise of American patriotism and pride. That evening, with flags at half-staff across the nation, both bodies of Congress stood on the U.S. Capitol steps in a sign of unity and pledged their resolve and sang “God Bless America.”

Within weeks our foray into Afghanistan had begun and it was greatly backed by the American population. In fact, a Gallup poll showed the highest ratings for patriotism in modern history had occurred between 2002 and 2004 with about 70 percent of the American population rallying around their government.[1] But like most things, that waned over time as we ventured into a generational commitment of trying to make a difference against the tyranny of terrorism, to include an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 under the auspices of removing weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

“Across the United States, people experienced 9/11 in many different ways but one thing that shone through it all was a rise of American patriotism and pride”

Now, almost 20 years later, we all watched our government’s resolve in Afghanistan end abruptly and we cringed as that nation imploded within days, despite all our long-term efforts to stabilize it. The Taliban, those who harbored the masterminds of September 11, were now back in control of Afghanistan. As of this writing, an estimated 250 Americans were left behind enemy lines, not to mention thousands of Afghans who stepped up to help the U.S. during that long commitment, and the simple truth is that many will not escape and will be killed. It could and should have been handled much differently but the resulting chaos has destroyed the United States’ credibility on the world stage and disrespected those lives lost on 9/11 and those lost and injured trying to make a difference in the Middle East. The sound of those in the halls of Washington, D.C., pointing fingers, placing blame, or trying to favorably spin this fiasco has been deafening and the lack of accountability has been disheartening.

A lot has happened and changed in the past 20 years, both good and bad. However, one of the biggest challenges we continue to face, one which has become more hardened, is the division of the American population over social, economic, and political issues. Our unity and patriotism as a nation has been undermined a great deal from within. Despite revolutionary increases in communication technology and access to information, which have greatly benefited the masses the past 20 years, the 24-hour news cycle and social media platforms have become more biased. Many would contend that the days of mainstream objective and balanced news reporting are gone. American news reporting today is often stories wrapped around editorial opinion whose main objective is to influence rather than inform. American news media outlets today seem to care less on how you are forming an opinion on an issue, but more focused on influencing how you should think, often along politically charged lines sanctioned by the media outlet owners.  Furthermore, social media today has given anyone and everyone a soapbox platform to spout their views regularly on topics in which they have no business speaking.

The saturation we have all felt at times by biased commentary panned as news reporting, click-bait headlines, wavering journalistic integrity, poorly researched articles, news anchors projecting non-verbal messaging, lack of tough reporter questioning, and unrestrained social media hacks speaking on a litany of topics has all driven to what I would call “belief-fatigue.” Nobody knows who to believe, who is objective, who is credible, and who is unbiased. The technological ease of manipulated videos, images, and even sound tracks has given many an easy way to sow doubt by simply claiming it had been “doctored.” This belief-fatigue has caused many to turn off, tune out, and move on with their lives, and that is concerning because they have dropped out of the conversation. This has been further exacerbated by a “cancel culture” and “wokeness” movement bent on removing and shaming anything and anyone deemed inappropriate as seen through today’s optics. This movement has even tried to cancel the National Anthem and even the American flag itself. Some of this is justified and some of it isn’t, but the ends don’t always justify the means.

Today, patriotism has declined to a point where now a majority of American adults are not extremely proud of the United States.[2] In fact, patriotism itself is being framed by some as un-American and linked to systemic racism or nationalism, so it’s no surprise that we see fewer American flags or people speaking out about their love of country, because people don’t want to be canceled or publicly shamed. The day following the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. military personnel, and many Afghans, I saw only one American flag secured to a chain-link fence of an overpass. Undoubtedly that is a poor measure of unity, but it reflects how things have changed.

Today we are a deeply divided country, and we are growing more divided each day due in part to our news reporting and social media platforms, which try to grossly influence instead of just informing and allowing us to digest and develop our own opinion. It’s hard to imagine members of Congress ever again standing in unity on the U.S. Capitol’s steps singing “God Bless America,” and that is sad.

But our adversaries are smiling at our growing division, our intolerance for differing views, our lack of resolve, and our lack of pride in our nation. They are playing to win, and we are arguing with each other. I’ll step down from my soapbox platform.

Disclaimer:  The author is responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. Intelligence Community, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Megan Brenan, American Pride Hits New Low; Few Proud of Political System, Gallup, July 2, 2019.  As accessed on 25 Aug 2021 at American Pride Hits New Low; Few Proud of Political System (gallup.com)

[2] Megan Brenan, American Pride Hits New Low; Few Proud of Political System, Gallup, July 2, 2019.  As accessed on 25 Aug 2021 at American Pride Hits New Low; Few Proud of Political System (gallup.com)

Mitchell Simmons
Dr. Mitchell E. Simmons, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired) is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Program Director in the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Simmons oversees three departments consisting of five concentrations—Emerging Technologies and Geostrategic Resources; Information & Influence Intelligence; Weapons of Mass Destruction; Cyber Intelligence; and Data Science Intelligence. He teaches courses in Intelligence Collection, National Security Policy and Intelligence, and Infrastructure Assessment Vulnerability, the latter course being part of a Homeland Security Intelligence Certificate program popular with students from the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Simmons has over 25 years of experience in acquisition, engineering, and program management within key agencies to include National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and multiple tours with the Defense Intelligence Agency. His technical expertise includes physical and functional vulnerability of critical infrastructure from conventional explosives, nuclear, ground forces, and asymmetric threats, such as infectious disease. Dr. Simmons’ niche expertise is the exploitation of hard and deeply buried targets and he has personally collected intelligence in dozens of strategic facilities. Dr. Simmons is widely published in the classified and unclassified realm and his products have seen diverse readership, to include the national command authority and combatant commands. He is the author of the definitive DoD manual, published by DTRA, “Hard Target Field and Assessment Reference Manual” used to educate those on this strategic target set. Dr. Simmons holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University, a M.S. from Central Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Management from The Union Institute and University.

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