The American media tend to ignore what happens in the U.S. territories. One of the most devastating storms in decades hit Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands recently, yet scarcely a mention of the storm surfaced in the national media. It's distressing, therefore, that in a rare exception to this neglect, a major national newspaper referenced the islands so pejoratively that I wished the paper had simply maintained its usual silence.
Marc Fisher, a columnist at The Washington Post, recently wrote about proposed 25-cent coins to honor the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. Fisher, a Washingtonian, claimed that the notion of the District of Columbia "being tossed in with Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and something called the Northern Mariana Islands is beyond insulting." Fisher went on to deride the territories, all of which happen to be islands or island chains, as "dots in the ocean" and "comic appendage[s] to the United States."
I wrote an angry response, which the Post did not publish. That's too bad, because I wanted the Post's readers to know how much our territories have contributed, suffered and sacrificed to keep America strong and free, and how all Americans, including Mr. Fisher, should be proud and honored to be associated with these unique and wonderful members of the American family.
Mr. Fisher needed a history lesson. That lesson would remind him that the Enola Gay took off from "something called the Northern Mariana Islands" in 1945 in a mission that resulted in a quick victory for America in World War II a victory that spared the lives of perhaps a million American soldiers. He would learn about the bloody battles in World War II that occurred in the Northern Marianas and Guam, where American victories were decisive in ultimately bringing about Japan's surrender. He'd learn about the tremendous suffering of the people of Guam under a forced occupation during the war and about the courage of Chamorro scouts from the Marianas, who provided tremendous assistance to U.S. forces.
I wanted the Posts readers to know about the valuable contributions that our territories continue to make to our national security and our war on terrorism, with Guam and Puerto Rico providing important military bases and the Northern Mariana Islands providing a crucial site for bombing and live artillery firing exercises.
Mr. Fisher and the Posts readers needed a reminder about the many proud, patriotic Americans who hail from our territories people who have traditionally had a high propensity to serve in our armed forces. Indeed, during the Vietnam conflict, military personnel from Guam were believed to have suffered the highest proportion of combat deaths of any American community.
Our territories are some of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places in the United States. They are all great places to take a tropical island vacation, from the marvelous Caribbean beaches of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to the lush rainforest in American Samoa's national park to the beautiful resorts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to the spectacular coral reefs that make all of these islands great places for diving and snorkeling. Many of the resorts on Guam and Rota were damaged by the recent storm, but a tremendous effort is under way to get them fully restored quickly.
In his column, Mr. Fisher ridiculed American Samoa and its Congressman Eni Faleomavaega by quoting the congressman out of context. Mr. Faleomavaega, supporting the proposed quarter to honor American Samoa, noted that his territory probably exported more sumo wrestlers and National Football League players than any state or other territory in the nation.
People from the territories are justifiably proud of the star athletes and other popular culture icons who trace their heritage to the territories — people such as Junior Seau, Tim Duncan, Jennifer Lopez and even "The Rock." Mr. Fisher derided these achievements as insufficient to warrant honoring the islands. Yet Mr. Faleomavaega did not offer these icons as the only reason to support a quarter honoring each territory. The list of reasons is long and varied.
Mr. Fisher's disdain targets his fellow Americans. He owes us all an apology.
Editor's note: David B. Cohen is the U.S. Interior Department deputy assistant secretary for insular affairs. In that capacity, he represents Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton on issues relating to the U.S. territories.
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