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Ever vigilant, partying down

Readying for the first post-9/11 Fourth

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In contrast to emotionally loaded holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, I've always appreciated the light-heartedness associated with the Fourth of July. Cooking out, swimming and fireworks are just more fun than the prospect of glaring at family members across a giant roasted bird. Naturally, many people still spend time with their families on the Fourth of July. Perhaps the difference is in being outside. At any rate, even the stodgiest and most annoying family members are often much more tolerable out in the yard with hot dogs jammed in their mouths.This year the Fourth has a different feeling. When I tried to put it into words for a friend the other day, he helpfully suggested "emotionally charged," which, although it's a phrase more commonly applied to soap operas, actually does fit.

People are worried. I've heard some people muttering about staying home instead of traveling and others who are concerned about heading anywhere near a big city (I guess Charlotte still doesn't count in the minds of most). I've also heard other, more vague statements regarding a "bad feeling" about the Fourth this year.

These feelings and responses are all understandable. Tension has risen all over the world for the past few months. Not that tension hasn't occurred in the world before. It's just that this year Americans for the first time see themselves as being a part of the world and not merely spectators sitting pretty a whole ocean away from the madness. We've had a dose of reality.

It's not as though the Israelis and Palestinians have been getting along beautifully until now; there's been strife in that segment of the world literally for centuries. Not even suicide bombings are new there. But that's not what's worrying Americans. The possibility of suicide bombers here is the thought that frightens us. India and Pakistan have also been threatening each other for a long time, and this isn't even the first time that the use of nuclear weapons has been threatened. The difference is merely us: whereas a year ago these news stories of violence in the Middle East would maybe make the back page of the news section, today it's front page material.

Contributing to the current mindset are the alerts being issued by the federal government. Most recently, we were warned of threats to Jewish community centers and the possibility that fuel trucks might be used in such attacks. I think most Americans prefer to be warned, allowing us to be vigilant ourselves, but these warnings are scary. For most of us, we've spent our entire lives thinking we were safe and secure here in this country, only to have that fantasy dashed in the course of one awful morning.

So it's no wonder that many Americans feel some sense of dread about this week's holiday. The Fourth of the July symbolizes the greatness of our country and a celebration of its founding, so, of course, that makes it a target for people who want nothing more than to prove how un-great the United States is, at least from their perspective.

Happily, fear isn't the only undertone out there. There is also a sense of pride and patriotism in the actions of Americans who refuse to alter their daily lives because of the threat of terrorism. There was quite a bit of fashionable and reactionary patriotism going around following 9/11. People did things like sticking American flags onto their vehicles and buying t-shirts emblazoned with statements like "I Golly Gosh Darn Love This Country!" I'm not saying these gestures were meaningless, but they probably contributed more to the economy, at least the flag-making portion of the economy, than anything else.

The subtler form of patriotism people have shown since September has been more meaningful. Although I've heard criticisms of Americans for returning to their daily lives without constantly thinking about the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon, this very bull-headedness is what I most respect about Americans. We haven't let terrible and tragic events change our basic lives, and that's as it should be. The tension we feel regarding the Fourth proves that we haven't forgotten the tragedy of September 11; we've just chosen not to dwell on the past. As I've said before, in many ways we're an improved people post-9/11. We've maintained our way of life, and our personal freedoms are largely intact, but we are much more aware and in tune to the global society that is emerging in the 21st century.

Our reactions to the Fourth of July are also appropriate. Some are frightened, others concerned because we're now more aware of the international nature of our situation. But despite our fear and our misgivings, most of us are still going to go out there and grill hamburgers, hot dogs, tofu burgers and not dogs. We'll still leave the potato salad out in the sun too long and get sick from eating it. We'll still get sunburned because we hate the smell and feel of sunscreen, even though we know we ought to wear it.

I'm not predicting either gloom and doom or out and out optimism for the upcoming long weekend. I think we should all be aware and vigilant. But I also think we should have fun, as I know we will, because, more than wearing a gaudy red, white and blue t-shirt, that's how we show what we're made of.

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