SYMBOLS LONG have been rallying points for political, religious and social causes.
They are particularly important at times of moral crisis. Throughout history, various images have been used to bring together people, rally support, allay fears and soothe suffering.
Since Sept. 11, the one symbol most evident has been the Stars and Stripes.
More Americans are flying it, wearing it and placing it on their cars and trucks than at any time in history. We have now come to expect to see it on nearly every highway overpass.
It was then with some surprise in late December that I first noticed on several overpasses not the flag but the oft-commercialized icon of popular culture - the peace sign.
In light of not only Sept. 11 but also the recent propensity that the world has had for violence, it might be time to resurrect this symbol of 1960s counterculture.
The peace sign consists of the semaphore (flag signaling) letters of "N" (two diagonal lines) and "D" (two vertical lines), representing "nuclear disarmament" inside a circle. According to the World Without War Council, the Peace Action Symbol was designed on Feb. 21, 1958, for use in the first Aldermaston Easter Peace Walk in England.
Though continuously representing the nuclear disarmament movement, by the 1960s the peace sign was being used in the United States and much of the world to represent opposition to the Vietnam War. The environmental movement started using it in the late 1970s. Throughout its history, it has been a fixture on the world cultural and political landscape, scorned by some and hailed (though often nostalgically) by others.
It is unlikely that the American flag, though appropriately symbolic of American patriotism and culture, will ever take on the universality of a symbol of peace.
America has a checkered past, vacillating between times of honest humanitarian good works such as the Marshall Plan in 1945 and the Camp David peace accords in 1978, and questionable, self-seeking, destructive and subversive policies such as Vietnam and Iran-contra. The flag, as a sponge, absorbs and takes on the values and positions that American foreign policy is advocating at any given time.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, along with our determination to secure our borders and bring the culprits to justice, we must intensify our efforts at educating others and ourselves on the importance of advocating values of global tolerance and multicultural understanding.
Sept. 11 has incontrovertibly demonstrated how we as Americans are the target of the actions, fears and hatred of people in other parts of the world. It has also shown that we affect others in much the same way.
To sustain the planet, we must increase the levels of understanding and knowledge that have as their overall objectives sustainable peace and social justice - something today's young people can work toward using the peace sign to teach about nonviolence and cooperation.
The peace symbol, having proved its muster in other efforts to bring attention to wrongs people commit against each other and the planet, can once again be used as a rallying point.
David J. Smith teaches law and peace and conflict studies at Harford Community College.