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A Texas 4th of July Celebration
July 8, 2003
By Jim Caddell, The Unrepentant Liberal

This year my wife, my two college-age kids, and I visited my mother for July 4th. She lives in a well-to-do gated lakeside community in the piney woods of east Texas. Having stuffed ourselves with potato salad, fresh east Texas tomatoes and cantaloupes, pinto beans, and hamburgers, topped off with Mom's indescribably yummy fresh blueberry and peach cobblers a la mode, we packed up our blankets, Frisbees, and bug spray and set off for the private fireworks show at the lake.

My wife and kids, being latent pyromaniacs like me, always take our blanket over to the waters edge, only a hundred feet or so from the launch area. The kids are in that awkward process of stretching their wings and leaving the nest, so we look for new more grown-up topics for conversation. "Anyone heard any good jokes lately?" I asked. My daughter replied, "It's legal now for gay people to have sex, but it's still illegal for them to get married. That's sort of a joke." Another liberal in the family: I beamed with pride.

The fireworks show was as good a show as we could expect to see anywhere. If we lay flat on our blanket we could see the explosions directly overhead. Ashes rained down on us and the air was filled with that wonderful sulfurous pyrotechnic odor. Between explosions we saw purple afterimages against a background of illuminated smoke. We were so close that we could feel the wind from the shock wave of one shell that exploded prematurely. Our bones shook and we probably lost a few decibels from our hearing, but it was great!

Americans love to blow things up.

It should have been a good time, a festive time. Perhaps it's my imagination, or perhaps I was projecting my own liberal leanings, but it seemed as if even out here in the conservative flag-waving east Texas woods people are beginning to feel a little embarrassed about America's actions around the world. Here we were in our gated prosperous community, enjoying a wonderful fireworks show, celebrating our country's independence, while at the same time our soldiers are occupying a country that never attacked us and never had the means to harm us. We were cheering the birth of democracy in America only a few days after we cancelled democratic elections in Iraq. We were celebrating our freedom even though we don't have nearly as much of it as we did two years ago. The crowd was so uncharacteristically quiet that I suspect others were having similar thoughts.

Americans love to blow things up. We're quite good at it. We love our fireworks and our flaming car wrecks in the movies and our wars and our nukes. We already have enough firepower to destroy the world several times over, and the Bush administration plans to develop space-based nukes and small bunker-busting nukes to go with their conventional MOABs and depleted uranium weapons: usable nukes, as if that were a good thing.

In the parking lot under the pine trees there was one car with a particularly sensitive alarm system. Every time an unusually loud explosion occurred, the vibrations would set off the car's alarm, and the alarm set off nervous tittering in the crowd. Did they see it as a metaphor, or was it just me? Americans love to blow things up, but Americans are frightened. We know we live in a dangerous world. We have our expensive stuff and we want to keep it. Was Iraq a false alarm? Did our repeated warnings sound to the rest of the world like that annoying car alarm that just keeps on going off when there is no danger?

Americans love to blow things up, but we get pretty ticked off when people blow up our stuff. The tragedy of 9/11 got us all pretty steamed up, myself included. What happened on 9/11 was considered a wake-up call. Now we should consider Iraq another wake-up call. Iraq has taught us that we can't go indiscriminately invading other people's countries "just in case" they may pose a threat later. Three thousand people died in the 9-11 tragedy, but in the last few months we have killed nearly 8,000 innocent civilians in Iraq and untold tens of thousands of conscripted Iraqi soldiers for reasons that have turned out to be spurious: there were no WMDs and no links to Al Qaeda.

Americans love to blow things up, but Americans are also pretty decent people. We want to be the good guys. When we kick some other country's butt we want to know that there is no other recourse. We don't want to find out after we've blown up a third world country that the President's rich cronies have received fat contracts to rebuild it. We don't want to find out that the President and his oil company staff were lying about the evidence. We don't want to find out that we have broken international laws and alienated the rest of the civilized world so that people who are already rich can make bigger profits. But most of all, when our tanks and planes start blowing up families we want to be sure that we have a good reason to do it. We don't want to feel like murderers when it's all over.

After the fireworks show was over the crowd quietly climbed into their Hummers, Suburbans, and pick-ups and drove back to their homes. They seemed unusually subdued compared to other Fourth of July celebrations here in prior years. The symbolism seemed obvious to me, and I wondered if the rest of the celebrants were having similar thoughts.

I guess we'll find out in November of 2004.

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