We know we humans have created a category called “citizenship”. We may attain it by birth, blood, or grant it to carefully vetted “outsiders” whom we allow to settle within domains our ancestors have pre-staked out. Every “country” has done it since time immemorial. Pretty much, we assert this:

Okay, we declare formally, we permit you to live on this piece of earth which our power controls to the exclusivity of others. We hereby give you this certificate saying you are one of us now. Having asked us, and been accepted by us, you now owe us your allegiance and support, and may even be asked to fight with us, and in exchange you may dwell within our carefully delineated boundaries forever if you choose, and so may any offspring you produce.

We know holding and protecting habitable land stems from the needs of human survival. For instance, when ancient Greek city-states made war on each other it was usually to seize more land in order to better support a growing community and also improve that community’s ability to protect itself. To do so, one city’s army often moved to destroy a neighboring city’s crops in order to compel that city to bring out its citizen-soldiers to defend them – or that defending city would starve.

The stakes were life or death. If the defenders lost, little mercy might be shown: the men were often slaughtered, and the women and children carried off into slavery. (Persian conquerors of Greek cities often castrated the young boys.) Afterwards, the conqueror usually brought in some of his own city’s populace to supplant the former residents.

It is easy to feel detached from that hellish possibility in our “legalistic,” modern world.


Last Friday, my United Kingdom-born wife became a U.S. citizen at a nicely done ceremony in a Federal courthouse in upstate New York. Fifty-two others from a veritable roll call of the U.N. also achieved it. It was truly inspiring to witness, and more moving than this American had anticipated it to be.

In relaxed comments, the presiding judge, interestingly, cited British former prime minister Tony Blair. He said that Blair has noted that any country which people wish to join, must be a good country. You had the distinct impression all of those present agreed: the genuine happiness on faces was clearly evident.

The judge remarked also that, of the 53 new U.S. citizens, just under a dozen had become citizens owing to “refugee” status. That is worth bearing in mind. They had fled some of the world’s horror spots for the safety and protection of what is today essentially the most powerful “city-state” of all: the U.S.A.

Such is a reminder that we are not necessarily as far removed from the brutality of the “conquer or be the conquered” existence of the ancients as we may complacently assume we are. Fortunately, most of us just never witness it. But it is still out there of course.