Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Assimiliation Undone

I was in the UK on July 7, 2005, when terrorists attacked the London Underground. I was at Windsor Castle, where I was part of a summer clergy program sponsored by St. George's house. The group picture of my classmates with the canons and staff that hangs on my office wall was taken that day - our happy smiles in stark contrast to the tragic news we learned just a few minutes later. I was obviously quite safe where I was - in the Queen's Castle surrounded by HM's guards, but security was heightened and I could feel the anxieties of others for whom London was not just a nice place to visit but home - a feeling I could easily relate to having lived throough the  9/11 terrorist attack on New York five years earlier.

The thing about the London bombings that made such an impression was that the Islamic terrorists were in fact British, members of immigrant families who had lived, gone to school, worked, whatever in Britain. They weren't, as the 9/11 terrorists were, foreigners in every significant sense. And that's why I am recalling that event and the reaction to it light of our own most recent episode in Boston where two young men who had been brought to the United States when they were younger and who had apparently assimilated well (one of who is in fact an American citizen), but who, after living among us, got religion and turned against us.
What causes a seemingly assimilated American teenager to become devout and turn against his adopted country?

At a funeral recently, the singer sang a song with the refrain "there's a family tree surrounding me." It was beautiful expression of the power and importance of family, which remains the supreme reality in life for most people. The bonds of common citizenship are sometimes likened to family ties. To some extent, civic life is a kind of family writ large, a bond that is intended to unite us around our highest earthly loyalties. Historically, the United States has done a very good job - much better than European countries, for example - of integrating all sorts of different people from differing nations, races, cultures, and religions in a common civic culture. For America to remain the exceptional society it always has been, it must continue to be able to do that.

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