Photo Essay

The Ceremony

The chorus

For the 46 people from 29 countries gathered in a huddled mass in the Federal courthouse in Rochester on November 10th, the intricacies of national identity were boiled down like maple sap into one sticky substance: blood.

Early in the ceremony, an elderly member of the League of Women Voters told us that voting was the most powerful way citizens could add their voice to the government. No mention was made of other ways to participate: joining a political party, volunteering for a campaign, actually running for office.

A woman from the American Legion Auxiliary with a hat full of pins and flags embroidered on her sweater talked about flag etiquette. New citizens know all about the flag. How many stars and how many stripes, why 13 and which 13, who sewed it first, and who wrote a song about it.

They also certify under oath that they are not drunkards.

The judge told us about being a Marine, and how the Marine Corps was having its 250th birthday. He asked a young, current Marine from Belize, present to swear in as a citizen himself, to say the pledge of allegiance.

Then the Judge introduced us to the ties he was wearing, taking them from under his robe one by one. An American flag tie. A Marine Corps tie. And a tie in the shape of...Italy.

Then, it was time for the singing and dancing. The 20 members of the Greek Athena High School Show Choir, dressed in red, white and blue outfits, got up from their seats in the jury box. The first number was called Heroes.

You might imagine the song evoked Revolutionaries like Patrick Henry, or perhaps fallen 9-11 firefighters. In fact, it was entirely about the US soldiers who fought in the World Wars. In the first section, angels came down from heaven to cradle the young men who had fallen No Man's Land in their glorious and peaceful slumber. I asked my four year old if she was catching any of it, and she shook her head. Good, I thought.

When I was a Senior in High School I read a lot about World War One, and even the second-hand experience almost left me a pacifist. How's this for glory: bodies strewn in parts and whole and rotting in craters half-filled with water, faces eaten off by rats. In the trenches, men hung their helmets and rifles off of the bony arms that reached out of the dirt parapets. Glory and mustard gas don't mix.

During the number that closed the ceremony, three camouflage-clad teens (all men of course) marched to face the crowd of newly-inducted Americans--and aimed imaginary rifles just over our heads. I instinctively stepped back.

I thought about the refugees present from various war zones: hadn't they seen enough violence? I watched the Bosnian man in front of me for some reaction. He was stoic and inscrutable.

But then one of the soldiers grabbed the area between his left chest and clavicle, and slowly crumpled to the ground. His comrade cradled his head. The chorus raised their hands and lifted the young soul to heaven.

I watched the soldier who still held his rifle. After all, the bullet that killed his friend came from our direction. Luckily the song ended before the standoff got out of control.

I wish this could have been different. I wish the definition of heroes was expanded beyond the soldiers to include great scientists, union organizers, civil rights leaders, teachers, all the people who move history forward. I wish some of those evoked were women.

I wish citizenship wasn't reduced to voting, killing and dying. I wish the ceremony could have inspired those present to accept complex responsibilities of citizens to their communities. I would have spoken about the importance of joining civic groups, volunteering, of being activists working towards their vision of the good society.

I know the Greatest Generation fought in the World Wars. I just wish there was something productive the rest of us, young citizens and new citizens alike, could do for our country other than honor the war dead. It feels like democracy needs more.

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