NEW YORK — Here I am in our nation’s Apple, or Big Apple as the phrase has it. Its air has recently been polluted by the foul oratory of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (always pronounced with a jazz beat) and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Speaking at the United Nations, they appeared back to back, as unhygienic as that may sound. Chavez called the President of the United States “the devil.” President Ahmadinejad, wearing his trademark Sears Roebuck windbreaker, took the high ground, speaking of “humanity,” “commitment to the truth, devotion to God, quest for justice, and respect for the dignity of human beings” — particularly if the womenfolk appear in burlap bags and the menfolk pray in Islam’s traditional “Bottom’s Up” position.
The image of America that these haranguers summon up is that of some nationalistic behemoth that is about to roll over on the lesser nations of the earth. To hear them roar the USA is a vast menacing race, threatening… well, threatening “humanity,” “truth,” “justice,” and the “dignity of human beings,” as the Iranian rabble rouser put it.
Perhaps he should have stayed in New York a while longer and looked around. America is nothing like the behemoth he claims to fear. It is a country of immigrants from different lands and different religions, all drawn here by the lure of freedom, prosperity, and the rule of law. Yet despite the diversity of race, religion, and national origins, we Americans all get along pretty well. There is no Sunni district of America where a Shiite American is unsafe. Our small populations of Kurdish Americans have nothing to fear from the variegated Americans around them. Here the rule of law and the promises of our Constitution keep us living together in relative peace.
Next week this city holds its annual Columbus Day Parade, celebrating the achievements of Italian-Americans, but open to all Americans to enjoy. We have all arrived here as immigrants, but we have all melted into the melting into the American melting pot and added our different spices to the American stew. Presidents Chavez and Ahmadinejad should have stuck around to enjoy the parade, and have a slice of pizza.
This year’s Grand Marshal of the Columbus Day Parade would particularly fetch their attention. He is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, a second generation American whose Italian parents arrived on these shores just before the Depression. A Marine, he is the first from the Corps to serve as head of the Joint Chiefs. He is also a fellow who has much to say about the success of immigration and tolerance here. Appearing before the Armed Services Committee not long ago he was eloquent on the service of immigrants in the military who gain their citizenship by fighting for their adoptive country. Some 8,000 a year do this.
In that appearance General Pace spoke of the hard work his parents undertook to raise their four children and of the children’s achievements: a sister who is a lawyer, two brothers graduated from the Naval Academy, a younger brother who is a successful businessman. “No other country on the planet,” he told the Committee, “affords so much to those who come here” as America. Then he added a line that ought to get the foul-mouthed dictators thinking. “I am still on active duty today for one primary reason, and that is I still owe those who served with me in Vietnam.” He keeps two pictures on his desk. The first is of Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro, the first Marine to die under Pace’s command in Vietnam. The second is of Sergeant Matt Maupin, our only service member currently missing in Iraq.
General Pace remains a soldier out of his sense of duty, loyalty, and honor. On Columbus Day he will head out onto Fifth Avenue with pride in his Italian heritage and in his country, the good old U.S. of A. He will have Italy and America in his heart, but he will have Vietnam and Iraq there too. Our troops serve abroad to protect freedom and to advance it. We failed to advance freedom in Vietnam — though the anti-war movement of the day insisted that if we withdrew, freedom would flower. A generation later freedom has yet to flower in Vietnam. The General wants to do better in Iraq, and remember in Italian pace means “peace.”