With the nation at war and so many families anxious about their future, this Thanksgiving holiday presents new challenges. The country has suffered a great attack on its citizens. Families have lost fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. People are worried about future attacks, about their jobs, about their security and well-being. Yet despite these concerns, Americans seem united as one.
More than at any period in my lifetime, Americans appear connected to each other by a common bond of patriotism. We see it not just in the flags displayed on houses and businesses everywhere, but in a new sense of civility and courtesy among young and old. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that on this Thanksgiving holiday, we take stock not only of our individual blessings but of what it means to be an American.
It's easy to take for granted those things that make America so special. We're free to worship as we wish ( or not), to choose our own leaders, to become whatever our talents -- and perseverance -- permit, in stark contrast to much of the world's population. But, perhaps, most remarkable of all is that we came to share a national identity in the first place.
Those Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving certainly didn't consider themselves American. Like so many who came here, they were fleeing persecution in their native country, but they still thought of themselves as good Englishmen and women. The early European settlers on this continent -- not only from England, but from Spain, the Netherlands and France -- could not have imagined that they shared a common national identity, much less one in common with the Indians, even though they occupied the same continent.
Yet settlers of different national origins learned to live peaceably side by side in America even when their ancestors had fought one other for centuries in the Old World. This may not seem all that remarkable to us -- until we realize how unprecedented it was at the time, and how elusive it remains for many nations even today.
In Afghanistan, even the routing of the Taliban may not bring peace and unity to that war-torn country. We hear reminders every day of how difficult it will be to forge unity among the various ethnic groups and tribes that make up the population: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks. Author Dilip Hiro describes the dilemma in terms of an old Afghan proverb: "My brother and I against my cousin; and my cousin, my brother and I against the rest of the world."
And Afghanistan is as much the rule as the exception. From Kashmir to Sri Lanka, from Sierra Leone to Indonesia, from the Balkans to Quebec, religious, tribal, ethnic and language differences set one group against another. At their worst, these conflicts lead to bloodshed and misery. But even when they don't turn violent, they can topple governments and lead to political unrest.
Yet Americans have largely been able to avoid such divisions. No matter where their ancestors came from, no matter how bitter the enmity between their ancestors' and those of their neighbors, no matter what horrors they inflicted on one other, Americans have put aside those memories and grievances. We have simply refused to bring to these shores the need to avenge old feuds.
We've been able to do so because we no longer identify ourselves chiefly in terms of our blood ties to one another. It is not a common blood that unites us but a self-created identity forged from a belief in liberty and a dedication to the rule of law.
As Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur wrote of America in 1782: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."
On this Thanksgiving especially, we should be grateful that our forebears were able to forget the past in order to create a better future. Endowed with that same spirit, we, too, will show the world the way to live in peace.