In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans gravitated to the one item that symbolized the country’s unity and resilience. That symbol became a hallmark at sporting events, houses of worship and even on niche merchandise worn by young and old, alike.
It was the American flag.
Unlike other countries that identify more with religious or ethnic symbols, the stars and stripes remains the single-most identifiable representation of American values hundreds of years after its creation.
“It’s about sacrifice and everybody knows that, and sometimes people don’t even know that they know it,” said Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communications. “We put this flag over coffins. We do not put the eagle over coffins, we do not put George Washington over coffins. This flag represents the so-called ultimate sacrifice.”
Marvin said the flag has different meanings at different times, but ultimately is a tribute to the lives lost in the fight for American freedom. Post-9/11 isn’t the first time it has become a popular fixture in society, she noted.
“During the first Gulf War, you had exactly the same kind of response. And then it tends to lessen and go away for a while, and if there’s some crisis that [captures] the attention of the country … then it will come out again,” she said.
The first time the flag was used as a unifying sign was in the 19th century after the Civil War as the country tried to heal, Marvin said. Since that time, it has been used in the fight for Civil Rights and other causes.
And while the flag is a source of pride for many Americans, there are still some who oppose, but Marvin said that’s natural. “It is the nature of these kinds of symbols that speak for large ongoing groups.”