Identity In Crisis

My friend Robby had always been a storyteller, so when he ran towards me one afternoon after his tap class (what random details we seem to remember) to tell me that a plane had flown into the White House, I dismissed him after briefly being uncomfortably stunned.

Only after discovering what had actually happened on September 11 ten years ago was the world rudely awakened to how easily Robby’s misinformation could have been a reality.

Growing up outside of Munich, Germany for the vast majority of my life created an interesting dilemma for me: although my passport declared me a citizen, the notion of what it meant to be an American remained foreign to me. Being stateside in the summer only offered me a small slice of what it was to live there. I recall always being astounded by the number of flags that lined the streets, exuding a sense of pride that I was completely removed from.

America was simply my place of origin, where my parents grew up and the rest of my family lived, but I couldn’t internalize any ownership of it myself. That is, until September 11.

The memory of sitting with my parents, watching the footage of the planes flying in to the towers on a loop (changing the channels only to find they were showing the same), trying to digest the gravity of what had happened, remains clear in my mind.

But the most vivid news images I remember see­ing were of those who were celebrating, burning the American flag and pictures of George W. Bush, prais­ing the men who added an undertone of terror to our everyday lives. In a weird way, the intensity of their hatred of America prodded at my patriotic apathy and pushed me to grapple with the question of my national identity.

Looking back at the aftermath of September 11, many people conjure images of a unified America, as tragedies have an unmatched effect of bringing people together. What I remember is strangers in Munich approaching my family after realizing we were American, on subways, in restaurants and on the streets, to apologize for what had happened.

The decisions made by 19 individuals didn’t just affect Americans, but threatened everyone; it united all people, bonded by a new level of vulnerability.

But still, the brunt of the tragedy was ours to bear, and it was frustrating when it appeared that everyone had a better understanding of the American experience than I did.

What had been so hard for me to figure out was what could fuse together such a “melting pot” of a nation?

When almost every family has a unique story behind their lineage, perhaps of hav­ing been on the fringes of their own societies (maybe they had escaped their encum­bered homes for a better life), and then there are still the few who are descendant from America’s original residents, how could it ever be possible for people to unite under a single national identity? As the aftershock of the terrorist attacks brought this seeming­ly intangible American spirit to the forefront of international airwaves, I re-examined these questions.

The answer I drew was that to be proud of my citizenship, it meant tapping into the meaning of freedom in today’s society and appreciating the value our forefathers placed on freedom.

Unfortunately, I was too late in developing this theory, because the definition of post- 9/11 freedom hasn’t been configured yet. Both in America – a nation built on a deserved liberty – and in the rest of the free world, there lies a constant, almost undetectable threat (that we can’t allow to immobilize our society, economies or general activity) that begs the question of how much of our freedom, the foundation of what it means to be American, are we willing to sacrifice in order to salvage our sense of freedom.

Conact Casey Macaulay at [email protected].