Red Glare

The Fourth of July never feels right without fireworks, for me, but not for patriotic reasons. My father’s birthday is the Fourth of July. When he was small, he says, he thought the fireworks were for him. One of my nephews, born the same day, may now grow up to believe the same thing. Fireworks are for birthdays, for one of the big family get-togethers. To not have a cookout and fireworks with the family feels like missing out.

Which I often do, being the family member who traveled the furthest afield. This year, I am actually at an aunt’s house, but she is away on a trip. I am left to take care of two cats, who are not thrilled with the fireworks resounding around the Oakland hills, and a small elderly poodle with congestive heart failure. Fortunately, the poodle seems to be deaf enough that she’s not noticing any but the loudest booms. I am listening for her telltale cough and any whimpers, to make sure she’s ok. So far, not much worse than an average night, when high-intensity snuggling sessions set her off.

I didn’t make plans to get together with friends and see fireworks. I’ve been traveling enough over the past two years that I have half-given-up on getting together with anyone. I don’t know what city I will be living in next. I don’t know who to invest my care and secrets in. I have gotten used to being alone.

And anyway, I figured I could watch fireworks from the second-story deck of my aunt’s house. Turns out, though, that most of them don’t clear the nearby hill, aside from a few half-arcs of pink stars and a racket of booms. I’ve been sheepishly watching the flashing of the local fog, thickening with smoke, pink and yellow and red; even this feels pleasantly familiar.

The rockets’ red glare. Other people in the US do this for reasons that are not my father’s birthday. To commemorate the Revolutionary War. The battle of us getting free, or really, some other people who lived over two hundred years ago getting some kind of freedom, for some of them. We remember the explosions, relive them over and over. But not in any way that touches us. We’re legislated away from buying or — god forbid — holding the exploding things, they’re cordoned off over a lake or river or a tree-less patch of a park.

The last place I saw fireworks was Spain, where for two years running I’ve ended up in Valencia, in March. That’s time for Las Fallas, a citywide celebration of light displays on every street, massive “puppets” which get burned at the end of the festivities, and fireworks. Not just fireworks in the evening, mind you. Fireworks in the middle of the damn day, every day for two weeks, during the legendary two-hour lunch break, in the center of town. There was music over loudspeakers. Young girls in mantillas waved to the crowds of mid-day drinkers and hippies from tiled balconies.

If you are accustomed to ooh-ing over nighttime sparkles, you may wonder what the point is of having fireworks in the middle of the day. I did too, until I stood right next to them. There are other aspects of fireworks to emphasize in the daytime. One of these is colorful smoke, which Valencians use well. The other is sheer, concussive, slams-you-in-the-chest noise. I was in awe. So maybe this is what war is like, I thought.

In Valencia, I was attending a human rights conference. One of my colleagues had recently gotten back from Syria. When we first heard the booms of Las Fallas in the distance, I was bemused at the racket. The Spaniards were committed to their lunchtime partying.

Then I looked at my colleague. She flinched every time there was a bang. Her hands fluttered around her face.

I thought it again tonight, seeing the sky flash red and yellow: this must be what war is like. But there are a few blocks of quiet suburban houses between me and the explosions. None of those houses will burn tonight.

While Syria is in ruins. Her people fled, and turned away at our borders. Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling to rebuild after the US populace was sold on pointlessly destroying them with the themes of the Fourth of July. Iran still living under dictatorship, decades after the American-backed overthrow of a democratically-elected government. Yemen teetering on the brink. Palestine in a state of slavery that the US has invested heavily in.

For oil. For an industry which has tipped the world’s environment to the brink of catastrophe. To ensure that Americans can keep relying on cars as heavily as we have for a century; to keep living in the safe suburbs; for the freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want.

It is past time for Americans to develop more respect, humility, and knowledge about the parts of our ways of life which feed into these distant wars. Because so many of us have no idea what it’s like to feel terror when we hear rockets and see the sky flash red — but more of us are likely to learn, the hard way, if we keep letting war overseas be sold to us without understanding how we are complicit in it. We have no idea what has been and is being blown up in our names. We’re clueless about how that has caused people to want to blow things up here.

All we know is that the Fourth of July never feels right without fireworks. So every year, we set them off, not thinking about how they strike our colleagues back from Syria, or our neighbors who worked or went to school near the towers on 9/11, or survivors of Sandy Hook or San Bernadino or Orlando. Or our veterans. Or even our dogs.

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