In the wake of the Jul 16 shooting deaths of five military personnel, Chattanooga residents have responded to the tragedy with love, grace and resolve. Sophia Ensley, right, and Barbie Branum hug in front of an Amnicola Highway memorial for victims of the shootings.

Last week, I went back to finish Charles Cooke's "The Conservatarian Manifesto" — which I highly recommend — after being distracted by some other readings.

Toward the end of the book, Cooke, who's a writer for the National Review, offers his thoughts on what it means to be an American. As a native Brit currently seeking U.S. citizenship, Cooke brings an outsider's perspective to that definition, and to help make his point, he invokes one of my favorite quotes by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

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Columnist David Martin

The American experience is "a willingness of the heart."

It's one of the most beautiful things about this country — that no matter who you are or where you're from, the American identity (distinct from sheer citizenship) is, as Cooke puts it, "an identity one takes on" by subscribing "to the essential conceits of the society."

As a nonnative of this area, that is also one of my favorite things about this city. To be a Chattanoogan, in the fullest sense of the word, requires more than simply living here. There is something special about this place, a uniqueness pulsing through this city's veins that you won't find anywhere else. And to claim the title "Chattanoogan" requires "a willingness of the heart" to embrace those distinctions.

The good news is that — like the larger American experience — no matter who you are, or where you're from, the Chattanooga identity is open to everyone.

I'd lived in this city for roughly three years before I made the decision to engage the community. Before that, I simply kept a Chattanooga address and had a job downtown. Only by stepping forward was I able to begin appreciating the dynamism of this place and the incredible people who've worked, and are still working, to make it a better city.

Within a year of my decision to become a Chattanoogan — not just a resident — I felt more at home here, a more valuable member of the tribe, than I'd ever felt in my hometown. To this day, that strikes me as one of the most remarkable circumstances of my entire life.

So what is it that separates this place from others? I'm sure that if we asked a hundred people that question, we'd get a hundred different answers. However, I'd venture a guess that a substantial portion of the responses would revolve around Chattanooga's dedication to improve itself. After all, that's kind of our thing here.

No, we don't live in Utopia, but one of the hallmarks of this place and its people is the constant commitment to leveraging experience and resources to create a stronger, more connected city.

And that brings me to last week's tragedies.

What happened here eight days ago could never have been expected. Though no one saw them coming, last Thursday's events have left their mark on us all, and that imprint will always be felt. Our children's grandchildren will know the significance of July 16.

But I'm convinced that those horrific acts eventually will be placed within the narrative of our city's march to a better day. Opportunity is often born of tragedy, and Chattanoogans certainly know how to seize opportunities and work them for gain.

It won't happen overnight, of course. The pain is still sharp, the shock is still acute. Recovery will undoubtedly take time, but in this moment of widespread civic self-reflection I've already seen this city's core values shine bright. We will embrace this disaster, and we will use it for gain. It won't tear us apart. It will draw us together, and we will be stronger for it.

This is a city that's reinvented itself, that constantly challenges itself, that propels itself ahead no matter the odds.

Chattanooga is a willingness of the heart, and we'll will ourselves forward using these dark times for ultimate good.

David Allen Martin is a syndicated columnist who writes from Chattanooga. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.