While even many of his detractors concede that Colin Kaepernick’s recent gesture during the national anthem is his fundamental right, they also suggest that exercising this right is disrespectful to veterans. All veterans don’t share this sentiment. Most veterans aren’t so sanctimonious that they expect people to forego their constitutional rights in deference to voluntary military service. The combat search and rescue teams of which I was a member in Iraq and Afghanistan were tasked with body recoveries, high-risk medical evacuations, and technical rescue scenarios. On numerous occasions, we transported servicemen and women who were mortally wounded, maimed, and disfigured. The thought of these people and the loved ones who continue to mourn them undoubtedly altered how I experience the national anthem and other symbols of national pride.
Equating the flag or the national anthem with military service is a fallacy that suppresses meaningful dialogue. One doesn’t need to carry a gun to be of service to the nation. The United States represents much more than its fighting force. We are not a military state, thankfully. Most veterans recognize that virtually everybody supports the troops, even those who oppose the conflicts in which the military is ordered by policy makers to partake. The utilization of the armed forces is a reflection of our national interests domestically and abroad. Military service is a profession and a necessary one at that. It is not a puritanical calling with a divine mission. When in harm’s way, the desire to protect one’s mates and the fear of proving oneself unworthy of them supersedes any sense of mission, no matter how just said mission may be. Determining the ethical plausibility of these interests is a conversation to be had between voters and elected officials. This conversation would never be necessary if we assumed that all military engagements are efforts to defend freedom or a way of life we deem to be virtuous. Indiscriminately associating military service with defense of freedom eliminates the need for the scrutiny that sustains healthy democracies.
In Kaepernick’s case, the real issue is whether generating more awareness about racism, oppression, and strained relations between law enforcement and certain communities will produce meaningful change. The assumption here is that if more people were aware of these issues, there would be less disconnect between the values the nation alleges to espouse and the reality for particular racial and ethnic groups. In the age of social media, camera phones, and instantaneous news, it is doubtful that lack of information is really the problem. As a society we are so oversaturated with information that we are often paralyzed to make a decision without acquiring even more of it. People who think racism doesn’t exist are a lost cause. They won’t be swayed with more information. People who think white police officers wake up in the morning with the intention of shooting unarmed black men are also a lost cause. Today’s racism and prejudicial behavior are more insidious than the overt hatred and bigotry that plagued the nation in the past. Consequently, leveling the remainder of the playing field will require the most difficult conversations we’ve ever had. As human beings, we are hard-wired to make stereotypes and simplify complex phenomenon to expedite decision-making, recognize patterns, and increase survivability. Some degree of prejudicial behavior is innately human even if ascribing biological, intellectual, or moral superiority to particular groups of people is not.
The country needs less soundbites and hashtags and instead needs to ask more relevant questions. Do the policies that cause law enforcement officials to spend a disproportionate amount of time in certain neighborhoods maximize reward and minimize risk to the public? In other words, are they working? If not, why do we continue to invest so much human and financial capital into enforcing them? Are most law enforcement officers sufficiently trained in the use of non-lethal force and de-escalation techniques that they can reflexively employ them under extreme physical and emotional duress? Camera phone videos incite us to demand emotionally satisfying, reductionist solutions to complex problems. While these recordings do promote transparency and accountability, they can dupe us into asking the wrong questions and providing us a false sense of context.
For various reasons, military members are careful not to highlight themselves as individuals in a group dynamic. Members of a team often have to suppress their individuality to increase the potential for collective success. Some commentators have compared Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali, however, did not have to worry about being a distraction to a team. Kaepernick has stated that he will continue to sit during the national anthem until social equality is achieved. When one considers the pace at which social change usually occurs, it is unlikely that Kapernick will be rising from his seat any time soon. Eventually the novelty of Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem will wear off. Until that time arrives, Kaepernick’s seat on the sideline will be a bigger story than the game on the field. While the issues Kaepernick is bringing to light are certainly more important in the grand scheme of things than football, his actions are not without consequences for the 49ers. Kaepernick is likely very aware of those consequences and should be given the benefit of the doubt regarding his motives for inevitably drawing so much attention to himself and away from his team.
Ultimately, celebrities like Kaepernick, despite their best intentions, are incapable of enacting meaningful social change regardless of the awareness and buzz they generate. Lack of awareness is not the problem. That the opinions of entertainers and athletes garner so much interest speaks to the lack of accountability we demand from elected officials and ourselves; we hold the former to a higher standard than the latter. A celebrity exercising his/her constitutional rights is only newsworthy because portraying someone like Kaepernick as polarizing comforts us by sidetracking us from the details that really warrant our attention. Passion and conviction do not generate solutions. Solutions demand restraint, humility, open-mindedness, skepticism, and candidness from participants in the political process, none of which can be achieved with a hashtag or symbolic gesture.