It’s fifteen years today since the United States suffered its first coordinated attack on our continent. Fourteen years and eleven months since the United States invaded Afghanistan; fourteen years and ten months since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act; thirteen years and ten months since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; thirteen years and six months since we started combat operations in Iraq; five years and four months since US forces killed Osama bin Laden.
My 13-year-old nephews and 10-year-old niece have never lived in a time when the United States was not at war. They have no memory of a time when you could drive past or even park in front of the White House. They have grown up in a world of metal detectors and “If you see something, say something.”
See what has never been specified, nor has say what, nor has to whom.
In this new world, “what” is anything strange or other — and “strange or other” is proving itself to be the ultimate test of the American ideal.
Last month I had the opportunity to go to Belfast, and through the generosity of a friend took a Black Taxi tour of the political murals in the city’s Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. A steel wall runs through the city, still, dividing Protestant and Catholic territory. Catholics are no longer prohibited from living on the Protestant side — but the murals, and the sectarian flags that fly on almost every lamppost, send the clear message: You are not welcome here.
As an American Catholic of Irish descent, I felt those flags as a warning.
I always knew, growing up white in the South, that the Confederate flag was offensive. But until I saw the green flag commemorating the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, and the white Ulster Banner, and the blue UFF flag, I did not understand that the Confederate flag is not just a symbol, but a message. That message is: this is our country, not yours. This is our history, not yours. You are a trespasser.
What could possibly be more un-American than that? The United States was founded as a nation whose citizens are bound not by ethnicity or any inherited attributes, not by religion, not by economic status, but by mutual commitment to shared ideals — those ideals being not only life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, but the right of every citizen to participate in government, to own property, to move freely within the country, to speak without fear of government reprisal, and to expect equal justice under the law.
New American citizens swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” The very first amendment to the Constitution specifies that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is literally in the DNA of our nation.
With the few exceptions of entirely pure-blooded native Americans, all of us are descended from people who chose that American ideal and were lucky enough to find welcome here — or from people who were brought to this country without their consent, enslaved, and left to survive as best they could after liberation. To pretend that the descendants of willing immigrants and the descendants of enslaved people experience the United States in the same way is delusional — but we can still move together to embrace that ideal going forward, can’t we?
Regardless of how we got here, we’re all Americans now. And being American has nothing to do with your religion or your ethnicity or your socioeconomic standard, but with whether you agree on the fundamental rights of humanity as laid out by our Constitution.
This ideal has been a beacon to the world for 240 years. If we let it be chipped away because of the actions of 19
terrorists fifteen years ago, then they won after all.