"What would you die for - and, what would you kill for?"
Questions like these, asked in university ethics, public policy, or globalization classes, seemed purely academic in the days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
They proved not to be, of course. On that fateful day, Americans learned that the idea of self-sacrifice was anything but theoretical to 19 terrorists willing to kill themselves to attack the United States.
Yet "self-sacrifice" - whether it means dying in battle or doing without butter - is also deeply embedded in American history and culture. It's a concept getting more attention on campus these days, and one likely to be essential to any successful war on terrorism.
Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has long grappled with the interlinked concepts of patriotism, nationalism, religion, and sacrifice. She is co-author with David Ingle of the 1999 book "Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag" (Cambridge University Press).
US success in its "war on terrorism" depends largely on how unified the nation remains during a long fight, Dr. Marvin says. And that unity depends on how deeply Americans from all walks of life are willing to sacrifice. "The argument that the American public is not prepared to lose even one casualty is not true at all," Marvin says. "It's what they're prepared to lose them for that counts."
Franklin Roosevelt called for all Americans to sacrifice in World War II, following the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese. And they did. Rich and poor sent young men to fight, and many to die, in battle with the forces of Hitler and Tojo.
In that case, Marvin says, the threat was clear, and personal sacrifice was widely shared. Nearly every American community and family planted victory gardens, rationed gasoline and food, or lost sons. Unity was sustained throughout.
No war since has enjoyed such broad-based support among Americans. In the Vietnam War and others - including the Gulf War, where sacrifice by the public was uneven or minimal - national unity waned quickly, she notes.
Whether the "war on terrorism" rises to the level of a Pearl Harbor in the national consciousness remains to be seen, Marvin says. A few commentators have recently argued that President Bush is not capitalizing on current unity by calling for more public sacrifice for the war effort - for example, pushing energy conservation to make the US less dependent on Mideast oil. Dr. Marvin agrees - but points out that the amorphous war on terror handicaps Mr. Bush. Even if he did make a call for enlistment, she asks, "where would they go to fight?"
Still, the country has taken some steps toward a sense of self-sacrifice, Marvin says. The televised impact of more than 5,000 lives lost to terrorism permeated the national psyche. As a result, many Americans - college students among them - are for the first time dusting off and deeply pondering the idea of sacrificing self for country.
"The strongest feeling [about the terrorist attacks] was over the deaths of thousands of people," she says. "That feeling is not likely to be maintained over a very long period of time without a more definite sacrificial commitment by the general public."
Despite broad support for military action today, the question remains whether rich and poor, white and black will feel that defeating terrorism is worth losing their lives or their children's.
One indicator: In a Sept. 27 poll at Harvard University, 69 percent of Harvard students said the US should take military action. Only 38 percent however, were willing to serve in the armed forces and attack those responsible.
"We know Americans are maybe going to pay more taxes, maybe more insurance, maybe be inconvenienced at airports," Marvin says. "But that's very different from asking Americans to send sons and daughters to war."
Still, she argues, sacrifice is an essential part of American nationalism that, in critical times, becomes a sort of national religion. Like the cross to Christianity, the flag becomes the nation's sacred symbol. And it makes possible even the sacrifice of loved ones for a higher goal, she says.
Signs of partial public willingness to sacrifice can be seen in the people lining up to give blood, and in the American flags flapping on automobile antennas nationwide. "The root meaning of the flag is the sacrificed body, the sacrificed soldier," Marvin says. "Any poll of third graders will show that they know this, too.... Most kids will say: 'The red stripes are the blood [of] the people that died for freedom.' "
The flag has many other meanings as well, she acknowledges. The "popular flag," for instance, is "parsed" or cut into pieces and used in things like the National Football League logo, flag clothing, bunting, and product logos galore. But flying behind it all, she says, is the "sacred flag" used to drape caskets at military funerals.
Will the genuine national outpouring for the families of the dead become the animus that galvanizes most Americans?
It depends on who fights, Marvin says. Those without college deferments did most of the fighting in Vietnam. During the Gulf War, Americans were glued to their TVs - at first. "They watched until it became clear there were not going to be a lot of American casualties - and then they turned it off." The "war on terrorism" could be quickly forgotten, too. Except for the indelible memory of planes crashing into buildings.
"The recent attacks were a big tragedy," Marvin says. "But many Americans are still not sure it is worth sacrificing their children's lives. If we have other big attacks - maybe then."