Carlos Arredondo is an immigrant from Costa Rica whose 20 year old son Alexander was killed in the Iraq War in 2004. When the Marine casualty assistant officers showed up at his home to tell him his son had been killed, Arredondo broke into the Marines’ van and set himself on fire, covering much of his body with second degree burns.
He took up antiwar activism, and during an antiwar protest in 2007, he was confronted by members of the “Gathering of Eagles,” a pro-war group. One of the pro-war counterprotesters snatched away a portrait of Arredondo’s deceased son, because he felt that Alexander’s death shouldn’t be used for the political purposes Arredondo intended. When Arredondo attempted to retrieve his son’s photo, several of the Eagles attacked him, reportedly “kicking him in the head, legs, stomach and back.”
People don’t behave like this over tax policy. What is it about hot-button nationalist issues like war and peace that make people so exercised?
Nationalism is about identity. Questions regarding Who We Are have caused mankind anxiety and difficulty since the dawn of time, and as the national state has risen to such prominence, in a sense it is natural that our national identity would become a large part of our own identities.
But as Arredondo’s encounter with the Gathering of Eagles suggests, the 330 million people who make up the United States do not always share answers to questions about who we are. To tell a militarist that his national tribe is really about peace and humility, or to tell a cultural conservative that his national tribe is about pushing outward the boundaries of normalcy, is to tell someone that his most cherished beliefs clash with one of the most basic elements of his identity.
Creating even more tension is the fact that nation-states are Imagined Communities. The broker in Connecticut and the line cook in East L.A. actually share almost nothing that would bind them together independent of the federal government. Their culture, their hobbies, their beliefs, and their religious faiths are different. So contemporary American nationalism by definition must elide these glaring differences or risk revealing that all that we really share is an Olympic team and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It has to create something both bigger and more abstract.
And whatever happened to Arredondo? His younger son Brian, who had thought of joining the Marines after Alex’s death, instead committed suicide in 2011. Arredondo later took up anti-suicide activism in addition to antiwar activism, which led him to attend the Boston Marathon in support of those running in memory of his two deceased sons. It happened to be the 2013 Boston Marathon, though, and when the bombs went off, Arredondo became one of the most iconic figures of that tragedy as well.
Seems like Arredondo’s lived through about as much America as anyone.
Arredondo speaks here: