Presumptive Patriotism, the United States’ Greatest Blindspot

The unquestioned assumption that some groups are more “patriotic” leads to dangerous security risks.

A self-identified member of the Patriot movement flies an upside-down U.S. flag in Olympia, Washington, on Feb. 6.
A self-identified member of the Patriot movement flies an upside-down U.S. flag in Olympia, Washington, on Feb. 6. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Jan. 6 was a day like no other in U.S. history. And naturally, the gut reaction to such an emotionally charged and traumatic event is to sensationalize certain details. The media, for its part, has been increasingly fixated on the reasoning behind the violent mob attack—and deservedly so—but the problem is that such analysis has led commentators to overlook the most alarming aspect of the calamity: a blind spot in the United States’ national defense strategy. Individuals within the country’s domestic security apparatus have shown they possess some tendency to fall prey to presumptive patriotism—a vulnerability the country’s enemies may well exploit.

Presumptive patriotism—the unquestioned belief that an individual or particular group will behave honorably as a show of patriotism—makes sense if concepts such as honor, fairness, and duty were all uncontested. However, in the United States, these concepts are subject to fierce debate.

Recent discussions concerning duty and privilege have placed a spotlight on what seems to be law enforcement’s affinity toward people who are assumed to share common values with many officers. If people who intend to break the law are perceived to be merely engaging in patriotic acts, it seems, then officers’ perception of duty and their ability to conduct a proper threat analysis are changed. Stated simply, presumptive patriotism clouds their judgment. This might explain why, on Jan. 6, some Capitol Police officers were derelict in their duty and others even appeared congenial toward the rioters.

Some lawmakers have since forcefully condemned the acts of that day, as well as the ignominious law enforcement response. However, it is difficult to assess whether those congressional leaders fully recognize the United States’ true weakness. Granted, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s initial statement warned that foreign terrorists could have easily seized on the moment and “blown the building up.” Yet it is telling that he also chose to deflect toward foreign terrorists, implicitly suggesting that American citizens could not have seized on the moment. Even though statistical data of violent attacks shows that domestic extremists are as deadly a threat—if not more so.

Nevertheless, Graham’s statement reinforces what I have called presumptive patriotism. His statement can be interpreted in only one of two ways: Either he legitimately believes the rioters were incapable of committing such terrorist acts or, despite knowing the danger posed by the rioters, purposefully chose not to alienate supporters of Donald Trump. In either case (or some combination of the two), Graham’s statement demonstrates a major security blind spot.

There are few things cherished more within U.S. culture than patriotism. However, as history has shown, it can be extremely personal and emotionally intoxicating—potentially leading to disastrous outcomes or manipulative exploitation. For evidence of this, one has to look no further than the Confederacy, comprising soldiers who proudly proclaimed themselves to be “patriots” all the while waging a bloody war against the U.S. government—evidently unfamiliar with the idea of treason. The dangers of presumptive patriotism date even further back.

Indeed, the name Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with “traitor.” Once an American hero of the Revolutionary War, Arnold secretly negotiated with the British, attempting to leverage his insider position while offering the seizure of the U.S. military fortress at West Point. The burning question is not why Arnold sought to dishonor his oath to the United States but why the British had sought to turn Arnold into an asset. The answer is relatively straightforward: The British suspected that Arnold’s compatriots could be manipulated by his perceived loyalty to the United States.

Arnold’s plans were ultimately foiled. However, after witnessing Capitol Police officers energetically smile for pictures with violent insurrectionists, there appears to be yet a seismic opening for many modern Arnold-like figures to wreak immeasurable havoc, especially those who share this apparent affinity or may otherwise become blinded by one’s perceived loyalty to the United States.

Any one of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists could have detonated a bomb in the Capitol or, even worse, done so at the direction of one of the United States’ adversaries. Russia, China, and others continue to search for blind spots in U.S. security—and this is surely one of them.

The United States must fully accept that patriotism is susceptible to radicalization and exploitation. Officers must be equipped with modern threat assessment training and participate in more advanced implicit bias training. Leadership throughout the domestic security apparatus must also be well versed in this vulnerability. The country’s leaders likewise have to take personal responsibility for their actions in placing the United States in such a precarious position. If the United States fails to urgently address this flaw, a future 9/11-style attack is more likely to occur, not by the hands of foreign terrorists but by the very same individuals one might otherwise dub “patriots.”

Docktrel Cromartie is a former police detective and currently in his last year of studies at The George Washington University Law School.
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