Thursday, June 30, 2011


“The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” -- US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

America was decked out in red, white and blue to celebrate her birthday on July 4, 2002, which saw the usual parades, picnics, and fireworks. Flags had been flying in abundance since 9/11 as her people recoiled from unprecedented national trauma.

For a change of pace, my mother and I decided to attend the Conover parade followed by activities in the community park. Looking back, I believe we may have unconsciously sought a return to a less complicated time. This small northwoods village where both my father and grandfather attended grade school seemed a likely place to recapture the true spirit of Independence Day.

It felt good.

We parked along County K between the community park and the post office, then carried our lawn chairs closer to the corner where the procession would turn east from the town road that runs parallel to highway 45. We watched a typical assortment of decorated vehicles representing various business and civic groups. Excited children waved small flags, scrambled for tossed candy and squealed at the fire truck sirens.

After an interval of nine years, there’s only one parade entry I recall in any detail and have thought about many times. A group of citizens had created costumes for an ensemble presentation of American patriotic symbols. There was an Abraham Lincoln, a George Washington, the Statue of Liberty, and a man dressed like Paul Revere cheerfully dragging something along the asphalt like an animal on a leash.

On closer inspection, that something turned out to be an effigy of an Arab with a rope around its neck.

Some people laughed. A few applauded. Many simply maintained uncomfortable silence following the effigy’s progress up the road with their eyes. The sunshine remained undimmed, the red white and blue flags hadn’t faded and the children still gamboled at the edge of the pavement waiting for the next handful of miniature tootsie rolls to be flung their way.

But it wasn’t the same.

Mother and I were quiet as we walked back to the car, passing the tall wooden sign marking the entrance to the community park where the Arab effigy now hung as though from a gallows. We decided to skip the picnic and go home.

I have struggled with the image of that disturbing piece of cloth ever since. If the effigy was labeled “Osama” instead of suggesting Middle Eastern people as a faceless group would it have been different? Perhaps. Following 9/11, there was a fair amount of frustration over the al-Qaeda leader remaining at large despite American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Two of those Army boots belonged to my oldest nephew in 2002.

There was a need in those first raw months for something to kick, a way to reduce a big scary thing down to manageable size and dominate it, even laugh at it. Americans were angry. And we were afraid.

In 1918, my grandfather left Conover to “fight the Krauts” in World War I. That’s when “patriotism” born of war fears targeted Americans of German ancestry and led many like his own father to change their names and disguise their heritage. When my father’s generation went to war after Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were sanctioned and threatened in turn.

In recent years it’s been good to be at parades that proudly celebrate our country and its diversity with love, and without fear. It is my hope that exploiting anti-Muslim sentiments for political advantage will wither and die now that the most hated and visible symbol of al-Qaeda has at last met his ignoble end.

This July 4th, I’m proud to once again be working on behalf of the public library, a beloved and visible symbol of Americans belief in the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in a free democratic society. Libraries stand ever ready to enrich our minds and defend our right to know, just as other institutions protect our safety and property.

Happy Fourth of July!

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