What It Means To Be American: Further Reflections on 9/11 and American Values


It is difficult to believe that the September 11 attacks happened well over a decade ago. I still remember asking my dad about what happened in New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania on that fateful day as he picked me up from my after-school program in the thirdgrade.

The images, the horror, the fear, the causalities, the chaos, the destruction, the stories, the raw emotion, and the pain — all still have not left me. Nearly 3,000 individuals died simply because they lived in America, simply because they happened to be Americans. Their only crime was that they represented precisely what Al-Qaeda could not tolerate: the ultimate representation of Western ideals, which were counter to their own.

How did they pick their targets? Did Americans have look or behave a certain way? Factors such as skin color, ethnicity, or religion did not matter to Al-Qaeda. Living in America was an unparalleled crime in and of itself.

So now, 11 years later, what does it mean to be American? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this question was frequently thrown around, with no clear consensus.

The most poignant and starkest example I can offer that exemplifies the extremes in interpreting “being American” has to do with the hate-motivated killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner, in the days following 9/11.

Frank Silva Roque, Sodhi's assassin, was enraged by the 9/11 attacks and wanted “to go out and shoot some towel-heads." He killed Sodhi and then attempted to kill a Lebanese-American clerk and a local Afghani family. Motivated by his love for what he thought of as America, Roque  shouted phrases during his arrest like, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”

However, Sodhi also had a burning passion for the America he knew, and felt deeply troubled after the attacks on September 11th. His feelings of patriotism prompted him to go to his local Costco to purchase flowers and flags in remembrance of 9/11, only a few hours before being fatally shot.. As he was paying for his items, Sodhi noticed a Red Cross Relief Fund donation fund for the 9/11 emergency workers. He emptied his entire wallet —and all $75 in it — into the fund, giving all that he could to a country that gave him so much.

From his point of view, Roque killed Sodhi because he didn’t look like what Roque deemed to be an "American"; he perceived Sodhi as a threat to his homeland. On the other hand, Sodhi felt and gave from his heart because he knew his country, America, was bleeding.

Being an American amounts to more than your appearance, the citizenship listed on your birth certificate, the status on your naturalization papers, or your current country of residence. It is far more nuanced and complicated than a simple denotation on a state-issued document in the back of your file cabinet. It’s a way of living, believing, and yes – even dreaming.

Are you an American if you exercise your right to free speech by burning an American flag?

One could argue that lighting the flag on fire to protest war, as was done during the Vietnam War, is inherently American. An individua who protests current governmental policies, is utilizing entitlements the framers and founders of our country wanted to secure for its citizenry. So the individual isn’t being anti-American so much as anti-war, a position we are allowed and encouraged to voice in this country.

Moreover, looking at our political system, it is evident that both Republicans and Democrats try to promote certain platforms that they truly believe represents what it means to be an American. The policies and regulations they support indicate their core American beliefs. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s a matter of what one believes is among the more important American values.

Most modern political ideologies and parties believe that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or personal background, should have the opportunity to actively pursue and secure what we commonly term the "American Dream." For many Democrats and liberals, it is about removing institutional barriers so individuals can focus on pursuing their own, personal goals without additional burden. For many Republicans and conservatives, it is about opening the economic markets so that people can create their own livelihoods with minimal governmental interference.

So, although the goal is roughly the same for these two seemingly irreconcilable ideologies, only their methodologies for success differ. It’s crucial to highlight the striking differences in the ways that people both embrace and represent America.

Though there is no one definition of being American, it’s vital that we establish what that means to each one of us.

After all, America’s beauty lies in its multitude of differences and complexity – at least, that’s what being American means to me.

This column is the property of The Trinitonian and has been reprinted with permission.