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As Americans, we have the inherent right to disagree

July 5, 2003

I was listening to a superpatriot the other day saying what a great country we have and how criticism of its motives weakens the solid front we should be offering the world in these difficult times.

He was a Bush apologist who was using patriotism to cover up the fact that we have gotten ourselves into one fine mess in Iraq, but that's neither here nor there. What struck me was the solid-front business he was promulgating.

I tolerated his rant as politely as I could, but when I couldn't take it any longer I said, "You know what's truly great about this country? You don't have to be part of a solid front if you don't want to."

I ended my discussion with the guy on that note, and as I thought about it later, I realized how much grandeur there was in negativity when one considers freedom. Inherent in its rights, you see, is the right not to.

The concept is particularly significant on this Independence Day weekend, when we celebrate the precepts that have made us different from much of the world.

We have the right not to participate in that solid front if it violates our conscience. We can stand aside, ignore it or protest in a way of our choosing. If our choice involves mass demonstrations, that's a right too, the right not to assemble peaceably but to take part in displays of civil disobedience to make a point.

We have a choice to disobey police orders and not to yield to the truncheons and tear gas of the blue army, and not to beg for lenience if protest puts us behind bars.

We have the right not to remain silent when giving voice to the innocence and the passion of our causes, even when speaking out brands us as something less than patriotic.

These fundamental freedoms to choose, to make up our own minds, overlap with one of America's most fundamental rights: the right to vote, to elect our own leaders, to define our own future. That also includes the right not to vote if we don't want to, and most of us don't. We can take our chances with choices made by that small portion of the population that does go to the polls. And even then, it's our right not to like what we get and to moan about our fate, even though we did nothing to prevent it.

It's our right not to believe what we hear or what we read, because doubt is an integral part of freedom. It is similarly our right not to idolize leadership but to recognize that human weaknesses exist even among those who make stupendous decisions. It is our right not to follow those whose leadership we question.

It is our right not to believe in God and to mock those who do, without fear of incarceration, torture or death. We can be atheists if we desire, and we can scorn those who use religion to debase humanity, who trumpet the Lord to justify their excesses.

It is our right to defy the jingoism that accompanies a drive to war, and our right to believe that those who die in war are more victim than hero. It is our right to shake our heads when we hear the parents of a dead soldier say they were proud that he died that way, instead of saying that he didn't have to die that way at all, torn by shrapnel, facedown in a ditch, bleeding into the sand.

We have the right in this land of rights not to accept the status quo but to challenge the stars in the name of destiny, to dare and sometimes to lose. We have the right to establish by losing that a truly free country allows for its failures and the learning that accompanies the grief when stars fall from the sky.

It is our right, Americans, to turn our backs on the freedoms that allow us to turn our backs. We can sit as the flag passes and, by our gesture, defy those around us who stand, hands over their hearts, solid citizens as tall and straight as boards, honoring the colors that fill the sky. And we can remain silent when the national anthem is sung, without tears in our eyes or a lump in our throats.

We can understand, as I always try to understand, the strengths encompassed by protest, by individuality, by the willingness to risk all for an idea whose time has come. I can't think of a better way to honor our country than by honoring the concept of choice and the liberty that options imply.

This is the power of my belief in America, and the soul of my commitment to it. And if there are tears in my heart and a shiver up my spine as I sit alone and sing of my country in a different way, it is only because I know I can. It's my right.

Al Martinez can be reached at

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