While American society wrestles, still, with the question of who is an American—that is, with who is entitled to equal opportunity in this society—we have discovered again that the practitioners of Terror know who is an American. They know that we are all equally American.
Timothy McVeigh, born and raised in America, understood that. So, Americans of African, Hispanic, Asian, Arabic, Native American, and European descent who worked in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City died that awful day in April 1995
So, too, did those murderers who struck at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998: Americans (and Africans and Europeans) of all backgrounds died that day also.
And so did the practitioners of Terror who have now brought so much agony, death and destruction to America’s shores.
Like Timothy McVeigh, they deliberately struck not just at just at the “symbols” of the American nation. They attacked the World Trade Center—which stood less than a mile from the National Urban League’s headquarters–and the Pentagon at the beginning of the workday, when both places would be filled with the people of America: people of African, Hispanic, Asian, Arabic, Native American, and European descent. Those who died and were injured were members of our families, our friends, and our neighbors.
Thus, the practitioners of Terror have shown once again that while they often condemn America for its history of discrimination against Americans of color, they do not hesitate to target Americans of color for murder, too.
They understand that we are all equally American, whether our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or the slave ships; whether they fled pogroms in Europe or tyranny and poverty in South America, Africa, or the Middle East; whether the governments of our ancestors’ country of origin were democratic or authoritarian; whether our families came three centuries ago or yesterday.
(Of course, we know that these murderers don’t value the lives of any human beings. Citizens of forty countries worked at the World Trade Center, a crossroads of the world. They, too, are among the missing and the dead.)
One piercing question this tragedy and its aftermath illuminates is: Do we Americans understand that we are all equally American?
This has been the great question of the American Experience. Despite the soaring, visionary rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence about the “self-evident truths” of human existence, and the rules and safeguards of liberty laid out in the Constitution, the struggle of various groups of Americans for equality of opportunity has in fact been the defining characteristic of this nation.
For most of this nation’s history, the majority’s pledge of allegiance to the principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was defined in such a way as to deny opportunity to entire groups of Americans. That denial was commonplace in too many sectors of American life right up to September 11.
But now, tragically, we see how American we all are—in the equality of the loss of life, and in the equality of the grieving that has been so poignantly on display in such mass ceremonies as the prayer gathering in New York’s Yankee Stadium and in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park this past Sunday, and in smaller ceremonies throughout the nation, and, of course, in many private homes.
That is why this great question should be asked now as our government prepares to wage war against those who have declared war against us. Will the great surge of compassion and patriotic feeling be a mechanism for truly pulling all of America together?
In the first days after the attack, some commentators pushed the morally repugnant notion that the need for increased security justifies racial profiling, whether based on suspicion of terrorism or a suspicion of some other criminal intent.
Yes, the need for increased security justifies a heightened state of watchfulness of everyone in the public sphere.
But there is no excuse for singling out some Americans for no reason other than the color of their skin or their ethnic background or the way they dress. Such a policy and practice would make a mockery of “national unity.”
Fortunately, President Bush and New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani have led many other political, religious and civic leaders in forcefully spurning such ideas. They rightfully understand that the way out of grief for the nation—the best way to pay tribute to all the innocents who lost their lives in this tragedy—is to build out of its many diverse elements a better, stronger, more unified American people.
They and others who are leading the call for national unity understand that, now more than ever, this worthy sentiment has to be more than skin deep.
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