Star-spangled bomb song

Standing for the right not to stand for the national anthem

By David G. Allan

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 25, 1996 in The Diamondback, the daily newspaper of the University of Maryland, College Park. The opinions, dated political references and poor grammar expressed here do not necessarily reflect the writer’s current opinions, knowledge and journalistic skill.

Next time you’re at a sporting event try this little experiment in non-conformity: When everyone stands up for the Star-spangled Banner, watch and listen instead of singing along and cheering. You will find the experience slightly frightening. I always get this disconcerting twinge in my stomach and feel like I’m surrounded by cult members — nationalist zealots who don’t take kindly to mere observers like myself.

I choose not to sing our national anthem of war on pacifist grounds, and I choose not to pledge my allegiance to a flag that does not stand for the same things I do. The paradigms contained in these consecrated mantras — patriotism, war-making and a single “nation under God” — are not ones I share. I stand in solidarity of other virtues like truth, justice, equality and peace.

Last week, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim basketball player with the Denver Nuggets, refused to sing the anthem. The National Basketball Association suspended him and fined him his salary for one game, $31,707. I wouldn’t call him a prisoner of conscience, but Abdul-Rauf is certainly a victim of ignorant patriotic fervor. Even the leading GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole said, “He ought to stand up!” Apparently Dole didn’t mean for his beliefs.

I admire Abdul-Rauf’s courage in standing for his convictions and sympathize with the difficult decision he faced. But I wish he had fought harder and longer. Yesterday, Abdul-Rauf was in the nation’s capital to play the Washington Bullets (homicide, by the way, is the leading cause of death for young black Americans) and stood with the rest of his team for something he doesn’t believe.

Perhaps he could have persisted if he were inspired by Miguel de Cervantes who wrote, “The man who fights for his ideals is the man who is alive,” or in the truth of these words by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts to the world around him, the unreasonable man expects the world to adapt to him. Therefore progress is made by unreasonable men.” Abdul-Rauf should have fought the system, taken the NBA to court on constitutional grounds and challenged the status quo.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that it was unconstitutional for the state to expel the children of Jehovah Witnesses who had refused to salute the flag. In the deciding opinion, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

The star guard chose not to sing the Star-spangled Banner because, in his words, the U.S. flag represents “tyranny” and “oppression.” Abdul-Rauf’s peaceful protest was sparked by many factors, from the middle-American support of Pat Buchanan’s brand of fascism to the racial inequalities of the American judicial system. “Oh! say, can you see, all the black men on death row?” he sang.

I concur with my ideological brother. In the past two years I have written in my column about the dangers of the religious right, the racism in death row sentencing, the need for affirmative action laws, the Western imperialism over smaller nations, and other injustices that prevent me from giving this country the unconditional love that many Americans believe it deserves. The national anthem is a song of violence — “bombs bursting,” redglowing rockets and a tyrannical flag flying victoriously over a “perilous fight.”

The Star-spangled Banner was originally written as a poem on the back of an envelope in the Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812. Local lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was trying to rescue a friend when he was captured himself and witnessed a battle over Ft. McHenry from a prisoner exchange ship. Later the poem was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an old English drinking ‘song, and in 1931 Congress made it the national anthem.

This song we sing before sporting eventş (which seems to be an odd phenomenon in itself considering the widespread international diversity of athletic teams) is only the first of four stanzas. The long version ends:

Then conquer we must, when our course it is just,
And this be our motto, “In God is our trust”;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

When we sing the Star-Spangled Bomb Song (as Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy calls it) we are singing a song about the triumph of a nation that uses war and violence to achieve its goals. And when we stand before the flag with our hands on our solidarity hearts, to what exactly are we pledging our allegiance? The republic for which the flag stands?

Think about what this country has stood for in the past — slavery, the hate of foreign nations and the killing of their citizens, the betrayal of the Native American, the destruction of the environment, the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and so on. Think about what our nation stands for today — big business interests, stealth bombers, the xenophobic intolerance of immigrants, the abandonment of the homeless, lack of health care, hate crime, glass ceilings, old boys networks, and on and on.

I bow my head during prayers, remove my shoes when I enter a Buddhist temple and stand in silence during the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, out of deference only. Perhaps I should say a personal prayer during the anthem as Abdul-Rauf does, or quietly whisper my own version of the pledge:

I pledge allegiance, to the virtues of the united people of the world, and to any republic for which equality stands, one Earth, under our care, with liberty and justice for all.

David G. Allan is a senior journalism and philosophy major. His column runs alternate Mondays.

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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