Not surprisingly an immigrant family is calling us back to the truth of the American experiment, to E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. Perhaps immigrant families understand best because they’ve often lived without opportunity or liberty and can recognize threats to which those of us not recently immigrated, are blind.
Also unsurprisingly, the military features in this call. The military as a social institution has long brought people from all backgrounds and social strata together for common purpose – not perfectly, not easily, but steadfastly nonetheless. My father fought in World War 2 and several years ago, after a lifetime of silence, he told me the stories of his service in the Pacific. The story began with this vignette. From his home on a farm in Missouri, he was sent to mid-shipman’s school in New York City. There, for six months, he trained to be a Navy navigator with other young men from across the country. He recounted being invited to the home of a classmate who lived in Brooklyn in an Italian-Catholic family. At that point, my father had never been to a Catholic church or known a person of Italian descent. His life would take him many places but it is that cross-cultural moment that he has remembered all of his long life. He spoke of how welcoming the family was, the delicious, traditional Italian meal, how good it felt be in someone’s home, and how much the kindness extended to him meant. It was a small moment in a momentous time that speaks volumes.
Mrs. Kahn writing of her son in the Washington Post, described a young man about the same age as my father when he went to war. Like many before him, her son wanted to do his duty and serve his country. Hear that again: his country, his chosen country. He made that choice with other young people from all walks of life. Surely there were many soldiers he fought beside who did not share his ethnic and religious heritage. Yet, they worked together, earning each other’s respect and loyalty. That common purpose and willingness to embrace difference is the core of the American experiment. The choice for president has become a referendum on that experiment. Can we still be out of many, one?
We dishonor all those who have defended this nation when we degrade those among us who are labeled “outsiders” because of their skin color, their religion, their traditions, or their heritage. The Kahns have called out to us in powerful voice and with great love, to stand up and be counted. If America is exceptional, it is because we are one out of many. To be one out of many means to disagree, to compromise, to let the majority rule, to speak out, and to listen to many voices. It is to see common humanity in those that our sons and daughters fight beside and, indeed, even against. At a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, our tour guide told us that the commanding officer on the good ship Missouri required a military burial for a kamikaze pilot who had crashed into the ship threatening all on board. That commander told his troops that, although the dead pilot was their enemy, like them he was doing a job his country had asked him to do and deserved a dignified burial. Leadership that calls each of us to do our best by our fellows not our worst is what we must seek, leadership that calls us back from the current abyss to be one out of many.
photo credit: ABC News