There is no hyphen on the American flagAs I listened to a news anchor this week talk about the hullabaloo surrounding a speech delivered by a Muslim whose son was killed in Iraq, I was struck by the way in which the parents of the lost soldier were identified: Muslim-American.

Much has been made of late about how divided is our country, and it occurred to me attaching a prefix to “American” sharpens the wedges. The now departed son was an American. He served in the American Army. He was quite possibly a hero, for reasons beyond merely his signing up to go fight, and die, for the rest of us. He happened to subscribe to the Muslim faith, as do a few million people around the world.

We humans are a tribal lot. We love to identify with a group. We include, within the boundaries of the U.S.A., Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Sikhs, and Atheists. We wear jeans to work, or ban them. We drive Fords and Chevys and Harleys and Hondas.

When I came to Gettysburg, I took up residence in Bonneauville, a town I soon discovered to be nonexistent – at least to the post office and  the Department of Motor Vehicles. When I went to get my Pennsylvania driver license, I put my address as Bonneauville 17325. The nice lady at the window, in a not quite so nice manner, questioned which was correct — Bonneauville, of which neither she nor her computer possessed knowledge, or 17325, which her computer said was Gettysburg.

A label can give us roots. In Maine, it was said to be a True Mainer one had to be at least seventh generation. I wrote about a farmer whose Maine origin went back to two brothers who had been paid for their Revolutionary War service with a deed to land near where I lived. In fact, the original land encompassed much of what had become, by the time I was writing, at least three towns.

I began working in Hanover, and soon was told by an old timer that to be a True Hanoverian, one must have been conceived beneath the picket in the center of Hanover’s square, or directly descended from one who was thus realized.

In the northern part of the county I call home, “Canners” are from a long line of people whose ancestors, settled the area and created its apple-based industry. They are proud of their heritage, brand their school sports teams with the moniker, and emblazon it on their vehicles with bumper stickers.

But that which can identify us also can divide us. In ages past, we have imprisoned Japanese-Americans, murdered Irish-Americans,, told unflattering jokes about Polish-Americans and enslaved African-Americans. We have used the monikers to separate those thus labeled from what we perceive as the general, majority, population. Our politicians run for elected office by specifically seeking the Jewish Vote, the Black Vote, the Christian Vote.

Of course, there is no such official cultural identity as White-American – a fact which causes consternation, sometimes leading to violence, such as gunning down nine Americans at Bible-study in a South Carolina church.

Anthropologists are well served by labeling various subcultures as they pursue what it means to be human and study how we have arrived at our current place and time.

The rest of us, I submit, would be better served, at least on levels pertaining to government and equality of rights and law, to emphasize our American-ness. Capt. Humayun Khan and his parents were and are, after all, Americans.