The Reluctant American


I am an American. But not by birth nor by choice. Fate, kharma, the butterfly effect…all these shaped my destiny to become something, to be defined as something. This definition is one I wear quite uncomfortably. I am a reluctant American and feel no shame in admitting it.

What I felt nine years ago, on that day of horror when America suffered its first, real wake-up call, has not changed much. On September 11, 2001, like millions of my compatriots, I sat and watched the destruction of three great symbols of this nation’s strength, the instantaneous (I hope) death of thousands of men and women who had simply marched off to work that morning, and I cried.

But I also felt a sense of disconnectedness because of my native “non-American”-ness. And almost that I did not have permission to grieve this event (although I am familiar with that, not having been permitted to grieve the loss of my mother through adoption, and of my own daughter to adoption). It’s hard to explain to people what that “no grief allowed” feeling is like.

Yet being somewhat on the “outside” allowed me a look at the process of recovery from that devastation in a unique way. Far from understanding the kind of hatred that led miseducated young men down a path of intolerance and the ultimate expression of intolerance, I do understand why people have come to dislike America. Always there’s such noble talk about our generosity, spirit, devotion to nation — all those things are true. No one denies it. But they are unfortunately mixed in equal part with the antithesis of all those qualities. We’ve displayed those too often lately.

I see a nation that has become more and more confused. The strength and solidarity that arose in the immediate wake of 9/11, led by the indefatigable and stalwart citizens of New York, have been laid to waste. We’ve instead chosen to follow the false preachings and prophecy of the media, our elected leaders and our religious leaders. We’ve allowed these same charlatans to guide the way we feel about our fellow man, about individuals’ rights and what we do, say and believe.

Barely a year after 9/11, I was awaiting a return flight to the U.S. from Heathrow Airport. Because I am European — Irish by birth — my children and I had no trouble physically blending in with the crowds waiting along with us for destinations all over the world. Black, brown, tan, white — all blended in a planetary olio with nary a qualm among us. Yet the minute the three of us opened our mouths (however quietly we may have been talking), we saw ears prick at our distinct Philadelphia accents and registered the looks of digust, suspicion and downright hatred directed at us. This was what it was like to be an American traveling abroad in 2002.

And I can’t say I blame those immediate reactions to our presence on European soil. I understood what they felt. They, too, were listening to their own false sources for fear-mongering, false patriotism and prejudice, after all.

The latest carry-on from “pastor” Terry Jones in Gainesville, FL is but the flashpoint of the moment, highlighting all that is wrong with our media, our leaders and our own warped belief system. That he backed down from his planned Quran burning today simply drives home for me just how much of a hyped event this was; and maybe it was designed as such so Jones could fill his ailing coffers and self-promote. How low we’ve sunk.

The planning of a mosque and Muslim community center near ground zero is a flashpoint of another color, but no less ugly. I think it drives more directly to our core confusion over issues of spirituality, tolerance and the differences between us. And I am also acutely aware of the feelings of some of my New York friends for whom the mosque issue is one of “sensitivity” and “respect” to their loss of loved ones in 2001. But on September 11th and in the days that followed, I never saw “sensitive” New Yorkers, certainly not in the thin-skinned sense. I saw sensitivity and caring in those who responded, by risking life and limb, and by providing comfort, aid and resources afterward. What I witnessed were a tough people who showed they could survive an act of aggression with dignity, with deserved pride, and with their humanity intact.

I believe they are mistaking “sensitivity” for an inability to forgive an entire Islamic people for the actions of the fringe. And that forgiveness must come if they and all of us are to complete the cycle of standing strong, surviving with our humanity intact and healing from an event that no doubt sent all of us –globally — reeling.

To me, the ultimate expression of respect would be for a Muslim community to build a place of prayer and worship and an ecumenical community center of learning near grounds where such a horror occurred.

If you believe otherwise, then the obvious corollary would be to destroy any Christian churches near the site of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, or near Auschwitz or Dachau. I find it the height of Christian hypocrisy to see radical Islamic aggression as abhorrent while forgetting past horrors like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, or the latest unveiling of the Catholic Church’s history of rape and abuse of children and women. Pope Benedict decries the planned beheading of a Muslim woman? Yet he and his cohorts turn a blind eye to horrors perpetrated within their own ranks, to women thrown into Magdalene laundries to spend a lifetime performing slave labor, for no more than the “crime” of being pretty?

We are a nation of confused morals, beliefs, feelings and causes. 9/11 threw us into an age of darkness: of mistrust and suspicion; of conspiracy theories and mud-slinging. The strength, resiliency, spirit and humanness following that event were soon lost in a swirling morass of ignorance. The howling patriotism that replaced it taught us to hate and to believe that to fight is right, regardless of the purity of the cause. Rather than helping really meaningful missions like that of Greg Mortenson — building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim regions, with the guarantee that education includes Muslim girls — we’ve built our own personal madrassas of hate-learning, fed by the media and whatever pablum our government officials believe will help get them elected next term.

I grow more and more apalled and frightened by the pure, mindless hatred I see in people — even those I am related to (albeit not by blood) or once considered sane, thoughtful individuals. Now it’s abetted by a crumbling economy, joblessness and corporate greed. I know the day will come soon when my own tolerance for this type of arrogance and fear will likely send me away from my adopted country. There is so much I love about this country and its people, yet I see it become more and more poisoned by senseless bigotry and lack of understanding. And if not for the current economic climate, I’ve no doubt I would’ve repatriated several years ago.

So yes, I am reluctant to call myself American and I know that will immediately raise the ire of some who will read this. They will shake their fists, their faces will go red and they will no doubt be thinking (or saying), “Well, then go back from wherever you came from, you #$@%!” But it isn’t that easy — I didn’t ask for my citizenship; I didn’t choose it. It’s a coat I must wear uncomfortably in hopes that either my fellow citizens open their eyes and hearts, or until I can shrug myself of that coat and at least reclaim my own birthright.

But for today, my heart goes out to all those who lost their lives, their innocence and their humanity nine years ago. May true peace and healing grow from that loss, and may we forgive those who did not or do not understand what true freedom means.