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On Fourth of July, contrasting visions of America

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Americans need to wonder which scenes from last week’s Fourth of July truly represent the character of the country whose birthday we celebrated. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as clear as it should be for a country that prides itself as a bastion of freedom “with liberty and justice for all.”

As North Carolinians enjoyed their community celebrations with parades, music, speeches and lots of fireworks, the national celebration in Washington this year was as divided as the nation has become.

The traditional July Fourth concert in the evening was as wholesome and jubilant as it is every year, a privately sponsored yet public extravaganza of patriotism led by stars, military heroes, singers young and old, the National Symphonic Orchestra and the boom of military cannons, and spectacular fireworks that blazed across the cityscape’s darkened sky.

While the military was honored and participated, the concert’s theme was not about military might but about American values, the goodness and diversity of the American people, the importance and love of families and the dream of freedom our founders had in 1776. Thousands of Americans turned out in person and millions watched on television.

This year, a second celebration was ordered and set up by President Trump. This event, using millions of taxpayer dollars diverted from maintenance of the national parks, was oriented toward a celebration of America’s military prowess with Trump as the emcee and, as always, the center of attention.

The token display of tanks and troop carriers, and the timed overflights of various military aircraft, were inspired by the Bastille Day Parade in Paris Trump attended early in his presidency. Trump wanted a similar parade of military might but was forced by logistics and cost to settle for less. But he was determined to celebrate American power.

But the strength of America is not based on military power; its strength is the power of its democratic vision, the rule of law and the unity of Americans. And that’s what was missing or downplayed in Trump’s almost private celebration, which made it a pale and pathetic imitation of the later concert.

Rather than draw in all Americans, Trump’s ceremony ended up demonstrating the division he has widened in the country. Significantly, the ceremony was held at the Lincoln Memorial before a selected crowd of only White House personnel, Republican supporters and VIP donors and friends of the president. Average people, even those in MAGA hats, had to stand and watch from behind a fence, excluded as participants and reduced to bystanders. Maybe it was sadly symbolic that Trump had to deliver his speech, not covered live by most networks, in the rain.

A third set of images, though, dominated last week even as the celebrations continued — the disgraceful conditions along the southern border reported by the press, congressional delegations and the administration’s own reports.

Asylum-seekers are being held in detention centers under inhumane conditions. Thousands are being locked up in camps meant for hundreds. Immigrant children have been separated from their parents and are being poorly treated.

The latest report on one facility says, “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chicken pox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly.”

Inspector Henry Moak made an unannounced visit to one station in April where he found an “overcrowded facility that had evidence of a lice infestation and he heard from children about going hungry and being forced to sleep on the floor.

“As for nutrition, the facility has no kitchen, so all the children have to eat is ramen, granola bars, instant oatmeal and frozen burritos,” the report continues. “Many older children are charged with caring for the infants and toddlers housed there, some as young as five months.”

Many federal agents are doing their best to deal with the situation, and many “have raised the alarm themselves internally, including that the children had insufficient access to beds, showers and food.”

Trump’s higher-up minions deny anything is wrong, declaring critics are lying and blaming Democrats for their own misdeeds. But the accumulated evidence of videos, photographs, inspections and interviews is a damning indictment of the American government.

And what really gets to me is that these immigrants being so cruelly treated have not broken the law. Seeking asylum is not illegal, but the government is holding them prisoner while their claims are processed. Innocent people who are seeking the better life Americans enjoy on the Fourth of July are being abused and humiliated — critics say deliberately — by an administration that hates all immigrants.

Are we not, as a people, better than this? Is this the face of America we want the world to see? I can’t help but think that for all the fireworks we enjoyed last week, we need to light some more under leaders who allow such bad policies in our name. This is not the kind of America God will bless.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.