Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of my naturalization as an American -- going back to 1986 when Ronald Reagan was the acting president, Ollie North was playing rogue missile salesman to Iran and George W. Bush was the family drunk. Technically I've still spent more than half my life as a Lebanese. But technicalities don't apply where the heart is concerned. I took the oath in 1986. I'd really become American, heart and soul, four years earlier.
It was a distinctive moment in the late summer of 1982. Reagan had ordered the Marines back to Beirut in a peacekeeping mission. They'd been there for a few months earlier that year, to shepherd out what remained of the Palestine Liberation Organization's guerrilla force following the decennial Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June. It was good riddance to the PLO, which had done its share of destroying Lebanon. But Christian militiamen and their Israeli enablers then massacred a few thousand Palestinian civilians, in revenge for one of those assassinations that are like solstices to Lebanon's calendar. The country's civil war looked ripe for another bloody round. Reagan thought the United States could help Lebanon back on its feet. So he returned the Marines to Beirut.
It looked like a decent, urgent mission, and a fortunate one for Lebanon. (French and Italians were part of the multinational force, too.) I should have been grateful that Lebanon was getting the support. I wasn't. By 1982 I'd been in the United States three years, away from Lebanon four. I'd pined for the homeland for a few years, but over time I realized that what I had gained here was incalculably disproportionate to what I'd lost over there. My conversion must have been complete by that September when my reaction to the Marines' return to Lebanon was the opposite of what it should have been: My allegiance was with the Marines and against the dead-end mission they were being sent on, and no longer with Lebanon.
My feeling was that American soldiers shouldn't die in vain for a country that couldn't be helped. I love my native land. But the Lebanese are tribal, sectarian and prideful of the prejudices that divide them -- not the qualities you can work with if fostering democracy is your goal. Sounds familiar? It should: Iraqis are cousins by mentality and history. True, when France and Britain colonized the Middle East they exploited tribal differences, propping up thugs and puppets to do their bidding. It's no mystery why countries like Lebanon and Iraq have little aptitude for democracy as a result. But there's a point where old blames become masks for native failures. Religion and tribalism are the region's original sins, not colonialism.
I found myself reacting the same way on the eve of the Iraqi invasion in 2003. In neither case was it a matter of blaming the United States, but of hoping to see the United States stop short of committing itself in such a reckless way as to inevitably -- and justly -- invite blame. It happened in Lebanon. It has happened again in Iraq. There's an element of the inexcusable in all of this. The innocent American died somewhere in the Mekong Delta in the late 1960s. It's been informed presumption since, so thickened by a run of contempt for law and international conventions that many of us don't recognize the country we love, or once adopted as our own more than our native country could ever be. I doubt I'm the only immigrant who feels this way.
This 20th anniversary of my naturalization coincides with the federal government's new citizenship test for immigrants. No longer will applicants be asked second-grade questions like how many senators there are or who was the nation's first president. The government wants questions that more meaningfully reflect the meaning of American democracy, and immigrants' understanding of it, like explaining the origins of the Declaration of Independence, the meaning of "inalienable rights," the purpose of the Bill of Rights or the separation of powers.
All well and good, but misplaced. Immigrants are the last people the government should worry about. They know democracy's meanings because they admire them enough to make them their own. Testing them is a waste of time, an insult to their patriotism. It's Americans' knowledge that should be worrisome. The results of a recent American Bar Association survey of students' grasp of civics were embarrassing. Adults didn't fare better. Lucky for the Department of Homeland Security and the government that begot it: It's been subverting its own principles unencumbered since 2001, and calling it the defense of democracy. If it were those test-givers taking the new citizenship test, they'd fail -- not because they don't know the answers, but because they don't think the answers apply anymore. They're the reason this America of ours that has been such a hope to the world for so long is now its heartbreak.
Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com .
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