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Mercury News report about patriotism in the new immigrants

We the people

By Mike Cassidy - Mercury News - July 4, 2003

It's a complicated business this patriotism.

It sounds simple: A patriot loves his or her country and stands ready to sacrifice in order to protect it.

But here we are, one people with many voices. A vast land of citizens shaped by different experiences and circumstances. A country fighting far-away enemies.

What one patriot sees as protecting liberty another sees as a threat to it. What one sees as a just war another sees as a reckless attack.

Today, on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it seems as important as ever to consider patriotism and just what it means.

``We the people of the United States,'' the Constitution begins, ``in order to form a more perfect union .. .''

More perfect. It's a wonderful way to put it, isn't it?

The United States is a work in progress. American democracy is a noisy, chaotic, uncomfortable exercise that over decades moves us toward an even more perfect union. It is not a straight route. There is progress and there are setbacks. But remember this was once a country that practiced slavery, enforced segregation and withheld the right to vote from blacks and women.

Patriotism is not a spectator sport. America will survive not because of those who lead it, but because of those who populate it.

It's in the details

Patriotism. Democracy. Freedom. The concepts are so enormous that at times they seem incomprehensible. Sometimes they can be best understood through the Americans who every day make choices big and small in pursuit of their patriotic ideals.

They're all around. The Marine, the activist, the county government worker, the professor -- all with different ideas of how to best serve their country. They have no connection, other than a desire to make their country better.

Marine Reserve Cpl. Ryan Brown will spend the Fourth as he's spent too many days since Sept. 11, 2001 -- thinking of the woman he loved. Nicole Miller, Brown's Pioneer High School sweetheart, died when hijacked Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field.

``I definitely miss her a lot,'' he says. ``I miss her companionship. She was a sweet girl. Totally, the best friend you could have. I thought about her a lot over there.''

Over there. Brown, 23, is back in San Jose after serving in Iraq where his unit was among the first to make Baghdad. He fought through 100 miles of combat. One hundred miles of being shot at.

``When it's real, the first couple of times, you're just pretty much really surprised. It's a little bit scary, of course, but the training takes over. You just get over it and fight back.''

Sure, he's thought about what patriotism means: ``Patriotism to me is basically like a pride and a sense of belonging to the country. And being thankful for the freedoms that you have. And that you're willing to fight for them in my case.''

Speaking out

Samina Faheem's Fourth will include a stint at the Silicon Valley for Civil Rights information booth in downtown San Jose. Faheem, executive director of American Muslim Voice, is working to pass a county resolution objecting to the USA Patriot Act, which broadens the government's investigative authority.

Faheem, a Pakistani who became a U.S. citizen in 1979, says the post-Sept. 11 law has unfairly targeted Muslims.

``This does not seem like the America that I love so much,'' says Faheem, 48, of Palo Alto.

Her notion of patriotism is unambiguous.

``It means doing your best,'' she says. Your best, including speaking up when you sense an injustice.

``I'll use that right that this great country gives me.''

Becky Bich Le is going to a family barbecue today. It's a day for fun and a day to contemplate her new country.

``July Fourth is the day that you have the spirit,'' says Le, 43, a county government worker who immigrated from Vietnam in 1993. ``And I can say what I think. Back home, in my country, it wasn't that way.''

But all talk isn't good enough. Le became a U.S. citizen and registered to vote at her first opportunity in 1999.

``Voting can change things,'' Le says. ``Voting makes things happen.''

Le, of San Jose, has her own take on patriotism:

``We have to know what the country is about. And we have to do whatever is needed to somehow protect the country or to participate in its activities.''

Participation is key

San Jose State University counseling services Professor Wiggsy Sivertsen and her partner will travel to Washington state this Fourth to visit with another lesbian couple and that couple's 6-month-old baby.

It isn't lost on Sivertsen that this is the first Independence Day that gay couples across the land are free to make love without breaking the law. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ensured that.

But there is work to be done, including countering the backlash, Sivertsen, 67, says.

And that work is the essence of patriotism in Sivertsen's mind.

``That is what patriotism is. Participating as a citizen with a sense of personal responsibility for the community that you live in.''

The Fourth is a good day to take inventory of the work to come, she says.

``It's about celebrating the fact that we need to continue to be independent and we have to work for that right.''