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Life as a Terrorist

VOLLMANN said that he is “an American first and would never do anything to hurt this country.”
— Department of Homeland Security,
report of investigation, 2005


In 1966, John Steinbeck completed a book called America and Americans — an appropriate subject for the writer I have always considered the most American of us all. Ruefully clear-eyed and sometimes furious about our national faults (“From the first we have treated our minorities abominably”), this brave, decent, sentimental man, a sincere thinker but not a deep one, a patriot who loved the idea of freedom — which for him included the proposition that a migrant farmworker deserves to hold his head up as high as any priest or president — will have my affection as long as I live. In America and Americans, he gently ridicules and sweetly praises the “home dream.” Our national form of this archetype is predicated on memories of a log cabin or sod house in the wilderness, a place we built for ourselves according to our own free notions, ours to cherish or abandon, and, most of all, “a place to which a man could return with joy and slough off his weariness and his fears.”

In Steinbeck’s time, the United States was increasingly prosperous and triumphalist. Americans, he feared, might be

on the verge of moral and hence nervous collapse . . . we have reached the end of the road and have no new path to take, no duty to carry out, and no purpose to fulfill.

Not quite half a century later, I offer this modest epilogue to his essay. The subject remains America and Americans; but my immediate aim is to shed however feeble a light on a semi-invisible yet increasingly omnipresent class: the Unamericans.

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’s most recent book is Imperial (Penguin). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Homeless in Sacramento,” appeared in the March 2011 issue.

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