On Being An American

I was born and raised outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago, an editor of The Patriot-News, the local paper, asked me for my thoughts regarding the anniversary of the attacks.

To put things in context, I was always very ambivalent about the culture of the area I grew up in. Though it's very geographically beautiful, it is a much more conservative place that I didn't really begin to appreciate until years after I had left. It is also a simpler place, in many ways, which is why the tone of my editorial is a little more straightforward and literal than my usual cynical and sarcastic self. Not, of course, that they wouldn't understand my piece, but that the usual tone of my writing wouldn't really do justice to the ideas I was trying to express.

Or, to put it a different way, I'm a lot more corny and maudlin in this essay, but it's mostly because one of the things I've tried not to do since the attacks is mask actual emotion with the usual ironic distance that I tend to apply to such matters. I'm an idealist at heart, and I'd rather have that show.

Also, the Harrisburg Senators are the AA minor league baseball team, which after a rocky history had shut down in the 1950s, only to be revived in 1987 as part of a revitalization of Harrisburg. The city has flourished since, and I can't help but think that part of the reason why is because it was so inspiring to watch that team achieve such a tremendous success their very first year out.

This essay appeared with slightly different edits in last Sunday's Patriot-News.


A month after last September's attacks, I left Manhattan for the first time. I had holed up a bit, clinging to my adopted city as a bit of a sanctuary, wanting to hold on tightly to a New York that suddenly seemed vulnerable, even fragile. But it was time to venture out, so I found myself en route to Harrisburg, and to the town I was born and raised in.

The thing that struck me, other than the usual contrast of Harrisburg, with its quiet and its slower pace, was the distinction between New York City and Central Pennsylvania's signs. The marquees in front of restaurants and car dealerships and churches had all sprouted similar reassurances of "United We Stand" or "God Bless America", in a singularity of message that I hadn't seen since my days as a teenager in the area, when the success of any local sports team would prompt all of the signs to show a similar unity.

That driving down the street would evoke memories of rooting for the home team when I was younger probably wasn't coincidence. As a self-described member of the New York liberal media, and a man who is the son of first-generation immigrants, I was never unaware on my visits to my hometown that there were some who felt I was somehow less American than they were. Add in that I probably physically look a little more like the hijackers of last September than most people's mental image of the boy next door, and suddenly what seemed uncomfortable or unusual might now be construed as downright Unamerican. But my identity as an American was forged by my experiences growing up in these small towns.

And in those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.

It was no accident that the primary target, the location deemed most threatening and offensive to those who would resent American culture, is the place where we embrace the widest variety of people. Where what it is to be American is at its most inclusive, and it becomes clear that American is not something that one does, but rather something that one is. Among those lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers were citizens of at least 42 countries. To have lost people from so many countries around the world is part of what makes those events a particularly American tragedy.

I realized shortly after the attacks that, while flying, or when crossing one of the bridges or tunnels into Manhattan, or even just in going about the course of my daily life, I might have to show not just that I had no ill intent, but that I might need to prove my "American-ness". A photo ID or a knowledge of American customs wouldn't be enough, now that those murderers had tainted those formerly unblemished credentials.

What came to mind on the times when I wondered about proving myself as an American were the images of my youth spent in Central Pennsylvania. I started to carry around in my wallet some ticket stubs from one magical summer when I was in junior high school, when the then brand-new Harrisburg Senators went from being nonexistent to being Eastern League champs. The proof of my loyalty was my history in Harrisburg, not because I had gone to a few baseball games, but because being American is part of who I am. Anyone can come to our country and eat a hot dog and watch a ball game and stroll along the riverside, but that won't make him an American. Being able to grow up amongst fellow fans, despite not knowing of the history of the Senators who played in the 50's, being able to bridge small-town boy and big-city man, being able to live both as a personally conservative son of immigrants and a politically liberal citizen of the United States: these were the proud privileges and cherished rights that made me an American.

It's a lesson not easily learned. I've seen the eye-rolling as politicians and opportunists on both sides of the political spectrum try to use the World Trade Center attacks as justification for whatever plans or programs they've always been convinced should be foisted upon the public. I've seen the grimaces and groans as challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance were mounted. I've seen good people with unpopular views labelled as disloyal, untrustworthy, even treasonous. So it bears repeating that being an American isn't something that you do, it's something that you are.

The lesson I've learned is to extend the embrace to all the members of our American family. Get annoyed, get angry, be incensed as you are with your sister who always votes the opposite of you, as annoyed as you get with your father who never quite got where you were coming from politically. And come back, shaking your head but still smiling, and enjoy the chance to appreciate those Americans that your reflexes tell you to resent. Be thankful for the chance to have neighbors or fellow citizens who raise your ire or offend your sensibilities. Be thankful that we can sit in a quiet small town and roll our eyes at the inanities of a visitor from a big city. I'll be the first to admit that every time I return to New York City from a visit to Harrisburg, I look around at all my fellow New Yorkers and wonder for a moment if they're all just a little bit crazy. And, of course, they are. Or at least they're a little bit different.

It's a difference we're privileged to have.

Tags: