A President's Reflections

Patriotic Pride

Posted on January 16, 2009

On September 11, 2002 I became an American citizen.  Thinking about the election in November, listening to the confirmation hearings now underway, and anticipating an historical inauguration next week, I’ve felt a welling up of pride and hope for this great American experiment, as so many have called it.  I thus dug up the following column I wrote on the day of my citizenship just over six years ago and would like to share it.  It was published by the Burlington Free Press, picked up by the AP, and reprinted widely.  Most gratifying at the time was a note from someone at the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington that said the column had been distriibuted among the staff and they wanted to extend their collective congratulations.

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I will become an American citizen today, a day now burned into American history by its shorthand name 9/11.

Some time during the pain and confusion and grief of that fateful day, when no one yet knew what really happened beyond the bare and unfiltered horror of what we saw on television, I made my decision.

After 40 years as a green carder (a Permanent Resident in the parlance of the INS), most of my 44 years, I wanted to be an American in a way that I had never felt before.

Truth be told, the decision was probably part of the same knee-jerk patriotism that resulted in ubiquitous flag flying and even in the French declaring “We are all Americans today,” in the weeks after Sept. 11.

I really wasn’t prepared for that reaction in myself. As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, it became ingrained in me to think first of America’s transgressions rather than its gifts. There was the Vietnam War, then the support of brutal regimes in Central America, and later the global greed of American corporations.

To become a citizen, or to fly the flag, seemed a patriotic gesture reserved for those conservatives I then disdained. My college education gave me the tools to be ironic, to be critical, and to even be fashionably cynical, but did little to make me appreciate America.

Then on Sept. 11, my generation, old enough to protest but too young to fight in Vietnam, jaded by Watergate, Irangate, the Exxon Valdez, and war for oil in Kuwait, and happily nurtured by 20 years of unprecedented economic growth as adults, was finally faced with a crisis much closer to home.

In just a couple of hours 3,000 people were murdered in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania simply because they were Americans and this country was now under attack.

I first wanted to become an American because I was angry with the perpetrators of the outrage and wanted to fly the flag in defiance of their deeds.

I was proud of the courage of so many in New York and Washington and in the air over Pennsylvania and wanted to symbolically and emotionally link with these genuine heroes in our largely hero-less age.

But now, with months gone by, my desire to finally become a citizen has become more complex and in some ways more deeply held.

I am becoming an American to pay a debt. It is a long-held debt for the gifts bestowed upon my family when we immigrated here in 1960.

My family’s immigrant story includes no backdrop of war, or imminent starvation, or political persecution. As in most American immigration stories of the last 150 years, a young couple leaving a hardscrabble subsistence farm behind (in this case, in the impoverished Canadian Maritimes) to find a better life for their children.

My parents worked two jobs — hard jobs — construction for my father and factory work for my mother, and then they cleaned offices together at night.

The rest of the script is familiar: saving to buy a modest home, public colleges and universities for me, until here I am forty-two years after we crossed the Maine border, president of a wonderful liberal arts college in bucolic Vermont.

When the country came under attack I realized that deep in my bones I think of America as my country, even as I was not fully of it as a non-citizen.

While I’ve always known that my parents’ decision to immigrate allowed me to lay claim to all that is possible here — education, opportunity, rewarding work — it was only in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that I fully realized how much America had laid claim to me.

I am becoming an American because I want a voice fully invested in the debates that should be occurring in our society. Almost as much as I fear state-supported terrorists, I fear what is happening within this country. I fear a Justice Department that seems intent on overturning fundamental components of the Bill of Rights and invading the privacy of its citizens through mechanisms such as technology and its ill-conceived proposals that would have neighbors and delivery men spying on each other.

As a society we now struggle to make sense of it all one year later. I want to join in the debate and to make whatever modest contribution I can, but not as a long-time interloper within these borders. I want the freedom of speech guaranteed me as a full-fledged citizen and I want the responsibility that comes with the part of the oath I will recite today, the part that reads: “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

I’ll take that oath seriously and uphold it against a zealot in a Pakistani cave or a zealot in the Department of Justice.

America, we’re not just living together any more. It’s time to make a lifelong commitment to each other. We’ve been together for too long for me not to know your considerable flaws, but I’ve also basked in your greater glories.

We have each other for good and bad and while I work hard to live up to your ideals, I am going to ask you to do the same. And I’m going to do so every chance I get in the very best tradition of my new country.   [September 11, 2008]

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