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Published: Sunday, 7/4/2004

Happy Fourth! We pause to remember why we love this land

WASHINGTON - On this most sacred of our national civic holiday weekends, commemorating the independence of our nation, there is much to praise about this country.

After a year of grim news, setting aside for a few hours the impassioned debate over whether the country's political leaders have led us wisely or well, it's time for our annual pause to remember why we love this land.

There's a new traveling exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, "Bearing Witness to History," of Sept. 11 artifacts (www.americanhistory.si.edu/september11). Among the items are those that wrench the soul and those that uplift the spirit - the red, white, and blue ribbons that strangers gave each other, the tattered American flag recovered from the World Trade Center debris.

In that most American of enclaves, suburbia, there's a reborn tradition - putting flags along the curbs in front of each home. In Anchorage, Alaska, brothers Chuck and Tim Craig have donated 10,000 flags to be distributed by Boy Scouts and other volunteers. The little flags are the marigolds of patriotism - colorful, ubiquitous reminders that there will always and forever be more to July Fourth than barbecues, fireworks, and retail sales extravaganzas.

The Craigs were motivated in part because of a community-service workshop in Wisconsin and in part because they are the sons of a World War II veteran. And that is another reason to throw out a few huzzahs this weekend - at last there is a beautiful, dignified, newly opened salute to the nation's World War II veterans on the National Mall in Washington.

The Supreme Court is often a strange place, where black-robed men and women who are decidedly not like the rest of us meet behind closed doors to decide what they think the brave, visionary founders of this country meant when they wrote the Constitution. At times the justices have made horrific errors interpreting this priceless document, but this past week they got it right.

The justices warned the Justice Department and President Bush that they were wrong in their decision to treat captured suspected terrorists as "enemy combatants," denying them lawyers and other traditional legal rights, such as the ones Timothy McVeigh amply received after blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building. Even under the threat of the use of civil liberties to destroy liberty, the justices said that no prisoner is beneath the law and no president, even in his role as commander in chief, is above it.

The decision is a beacon of hope to those who worry that the terrorists who hate us might cause us to destroy the very freedoms that make us unique but which were denied too long to too many of our own.

A few days ago, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, said she wanted to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the confederacy said it would be delighted to have her. She is the long-denied biracial daughter of Strom Thurmond, now deceased, the former senator from South Carolina who once was a white segregationist, and his family's maid. In a statement, she said she wants her children and grandchildren to understand their heritage. "Through my father's line, I am fortunate to trace my heritage back to the birth of our nation and beyond. On my mother's side, like most African-Americans, my history is broken by the course of human events."

Hurrah for the courage of Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Hurrah for an encouraging moment in the country's long battle with the evils of racism in the fight to get freedom right.

And hurrah for the good citizens of America who are donating time and money to put together care packages for U.S. soldiers overseas, especially those in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is important that these soldiers know the dreadful abuses by a few, of both high and low rank, military and civilian, have not tarnished them all.

Caught in the muddled aftermath of a war that they might not have agreed with for the stated cause of spreading freedom in distant deserts where liberty may be an alien concept, the men and women of the armed forces who serve well and sacrifice much - and their families - are the noblest of all on this Independence Day.



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