The death of all of those people last year in September--the product of hate, and misunderstanding, and mindless violence --was shattering. From time to time I'm still drawn to remember people I didn't even know: the fourteen year old boy flying out of Boston to the West Coast for the first time by himself, the single mother of four who spoke little English with a new job cleaning bathrooms in the World Trade Center, the guy who insisted on waiting with his wheelchair-bound friend who couldn't go down the stairway. So many died in that appalling event, and not just Americans. But the tragedy has come to feel overshadowed by troops movements and ultimatums. I understand the inclination to strike back. Yet, when it comes to war and war making, I practice standing outside the circle. For as long as I remember I've tried to stand for peace in whatever small way I've been handed (although sometimes I've surely failed)--to not just avoid violence, but to make peace, to in some small way make the world a better place.
And I've had multiple opportunities to discuss the difference between patriotism and militarism over the past year. It may be a fine line, but there is a line there.
I treasure the freedoms inherent in this land. They have impacted on who I am; I assume freedoms' presence. The right to express myself, the right to worship as I am lead. The right for my children to explore who they are and to reach for their own stars. I don't think when James and Bessie Williams caught the boat from Sligo or when Owen and Catherine Hughes sailed out of Anglessey they understood the impact of their decision. But, oh I'm glad they packed up the kids and made the voyage.
Still I am challenged by symbols. Forget for a moment how the flag has become commercialized and how it sells everything from hamburgers to shoes. The flag as a symbol has had great upsurgence in the past year as a sign of grief, as a sign of defiance. There are many that love the flag as an icon. And that is fine. For them.
But it cannot be my symbol. For me it stands for too many conflicted images. Ultimately for me the flag is intimately connected to militarism and the violence we inflict on each other. When I see it I don't see a symbol of our ideals and the best of who we as a nation might be, I see leaders that bring our children to kill the children of other people. That's what I see.
So what is my symbol? It may not look as snappy on a breezy day, but what invokes in me the vision of the American people at their best is the Statue of Liberty. A gift from France to celebrate the first hundred years of liberty--a gift that almost didn't happen, wealthy industrialist's being concerned that it might give workers "the wrong idea." But with the push of Joseph Pulitzer, himself a Hungarian immigrant, it did. The Statue of Liberty--a woman standing there all sure of herself, holding a beacon for anyone who suffers, anyone who wants, anyone who needs. On the base paid for by pennies collected from school children are the words from "The New Colossus" written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus--written in memory of Russian Jews who suffered at the hand of the Czar, but written for all of us who've come:
....cries she with silent lips.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
That is the America I celebrate. Those are the principles I cherish.
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