It was certainly the most enjoyable time I’ve ever spent in a courtroom.
Recently we had a chance to attend a naturalization ceremony in Wyoming where eight people, including a friend of ours from Turkey, became U. S. citizens.
Swearing allegiance to a new country is surprisingly quick. The oath itself only took a few minutes. But the people in charge carried out the event with the ceremony it deserved. There was a short speech of welcome from the judge. A children’s chorus sang several patriotic songs, including all three verses of the national anthem. Maybe they were a bit wobbly on the high notes, but they knew all the words—unlike the rest of us, who sang along for the first verse and faded off into muted humming for the others. Representatives from the DAR, the VFW, the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, and a couple of other organizations welcomed the new citizens with smiles, handshakes, and gifts of flags, banners, and patriotic tokens in red-white-and-blue bags.
The whole event was welcoming and warm. It was friendly. It was moving. It was inspiring.
And it was missing something.
The judge, in his talk, referred to his own immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents. He told the new citizens how much their children and grandchildren would benefit from their decision to become part of the United States. Without saying so directly, he implied that life wherever they had come from must have been bad and life here would be ever so much better.
Maybe, for some of them, that was true. But I happened to know it didn’t apply to at least one of the new citizens. Our friend would have had a perfectly fine, middle-class life in Turkey. He came here to go to school, and now, with a Master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D., he may have more opportunities here. But I suspect much of the reason for his decision to become a U. S. citizen was sitting beside me in the courtroom—his American wife.
I also know he is a responsible, hard-working, honorable young man—the kind of person you’d be glad to have move into your neighborhood, your town, or your country.
And that’s the piece the judge had missed. Essentially, he said how lucky the immigrants were to be here But he forgot to add how lucky we were to have them.
So all the while I watched and listened to the presentations of the gifts, and the three verses of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the raising of right hands and swearing allegiance, the back of my mind was busy rehearsing what I wished the judge had said. What I would like to say if I had a chance. I imagined the judge asking if anyone had anything else to say. I imagined myself raising my hand and asking, “Your Honor, may I add something?”
We’ve probably all been in that situation. Sitting there, knowing something needs to be said, knowing just what should be said, and wishing someone would say it.
This time, someone did. After the last song, when the new citizens sat in front of their piles of red-white-and-blue gift bags, in that pause when an event is a heartbeat away from its conclusion, the judge asked, “Does anyone else have any words of welcome?”
And my hand went up without a second’s hesitation. I didn’t have to decide whether to act; I wasn’t nervous. In my mind, this had already happened, and my reaction was more like, “Oh, there’s my cue.”
I raised my hand and said, “Your Honor, may I add something?” He nodded. So I stood up and put in that missing piece. I thanked the new citizens for bringing their skills, their energy, and their hard work to the United States, and I told them we were grateful to have them here.
It was something that needed to be said. And on this particular occasion, I happened to be the person in the right place at the right time to say it.
One of the rights guaranteed to U. S. citizens, old and new, is freedom of speech. We have the right to say what we think, to criticize our elected officials, to express our opinions. Sometimes we exercise that right rudely, crudely, or loudly.
But like all rights, this one comes with obligations and responsibilities. Sometimes, freedom of speech goes beyond what we can say to what we should say. It means each of us, in a circumstance where “somebody should say something,” can be that somebody. Sometimes, freedom of speech means being the one to say the “something” that needs to be said.