Paul Greenberg

It was true enough that, when finally captured, he was imprisoned in a dusty little calaboose at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. To visit it was to be overcome by the sad and sordid end of a great chief who once roamed the buttes and canyons, but ended his days locked up in a narrow little cell.

So allow me to second the indignation of Loretta Tuell of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Nez Perce tribe, who pointed out how inappropriate it was to associate so heroic a name with so low a villain. The codemaker might as well have called our enemy Tecumseh, the name of another great American hero -- even if it was the U.S. Army he was fighting. That detail does not diminish his heroism, as anyone who can recite Confederate heroes by the hour well knows.

Like so many tasteless offenses, this one surely was committed out of ignorance rather than malice. But it does reveal the vacuum we have allowed to develop in place of even a basic knowledge of our own history, myth and folklore. Somebody ought to tell the "intelligence" officer who let this code name get by him to go and study. Which wouldn't be bad advice for a lot of us. A people that does not know its own history will not remain one people for long.

Almost as offensive are the kind of outraged reactions that might lead one to believe that the use of Geronimo's name to identify someone wholly bereft of his qualities insulted only American Indians, now known as Native Americans. (The rest of us native Americans don't seem to be included in that designation, an act of discrimination I also protest.)

Using Geronimo's good name in association with someone as vile as Osama bin Laden insults, intentionally or not, all Americans, for -- lest we forget -- Geronimo belonged to all of us. Let it not be claimed that only a hyphenated kind of American need object when Geronimo's name is used so carelessly.

To some of us, there are no hyphenated Americans. That's one of the beauties, and strengths, of this country. And one of the things that explains our remarkable growth, endurance and continuity. We may be a young people, but we have a remarkably continuous history because each generation accepts the heroes of the others that have gone before it. Over time political passions fade into a More Perfect Union, and we become one nation indivisible.

Now let the celebration of these latest American heroes proceed unhindered. And let the story of their deeds not be tarnished by this speck some unthinking type had to go and leave on the saga of a raid so daring that it would surely have pleased, most of all, Geronimo himself.

A name the 82nd Airborne knew how to use properly.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.