January 31, 2011


As the pundits parsed over President Obama’s State of the Union address last January 25th – mainly on the budget deficit, the need for more jobs, the sputnik moment for research and innovation – little is mentioned on three parts of Obama’s speech which resonated to non-American ears as reflective of American values.

“… Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation …”

In the very same chamber, a few weeks ago young college students cried and embraced one another when Congress voted to defeat the Dream Act – a hope-tinged acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The proposed legislation would have paved the way to permanent residency for students who arrived illegally as minors - subject to passing a set of conditional criteria such as having no criminal record. 

Illegal minors - an estimated 65.000 are expected to graduate from high school this year - are hardly a blip in the nation’s demographics of “aliens” as US Immigration labels any foreigner in America, legally or not. As a group, alien minors have no political muscle. Yet President Obama in a fatherly tone stated in his speech,

“And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”

To much of the world – it is a rarity to hear a leader speak with such compassion for a group – foreigners - often used as a lightning rod for national woes. The world heard an American leader reason out for a sensible application of justice and fairness.

For the first time in a State of the Union address, a President mentioned the word “gay.”

“Our troops come from every corner of this country -– they're black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

This lyrical and tangential reference to homosexuality that night has neutralized the acrimonious implications of a word that has been associated with perversity and frivolity. The world heard a heterosexual American man make a case for a morality that is taboo and subject to discrimination if not hostility or death in many countries even within America.

It was just over a year ago when a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 in Fort Hood, a military base in Texas. The suspect is Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim of Palestinian descent who was serving as a psychiatrist with the US Army. The memories are still fresh, and yet President Obama boldly declared:

“And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.”

Muslims – family? This consanguineous affirmation – received with a standing applause by Congress – was to the eyes and ears of the world astounding and in some regions mind-boggling on how one should treat their enemies – or in this case perceived enemies.

A speech is a speech – but to the world outside the US, President Obama’s utterances laden with so much humanity and spirituality were fascinating and intriguing.

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