Our veteran heroes died for this?

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You never know where you'll run into something that makes you stop and think.

Over the weekend, I was searching for information on using cypress wood in an outdoor project and found myself reading, after message-board stuff about oil content and the weathering process, an unknown poster's signature quote:

"A veteran is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to 'The United States of America,' for an amount up to and including his life."

If the online poster himself was not a veteran, he was probably the relative of one -- perhaps of one whose "blank check" had been fully drawn.

Somewhere between flipping burgers and scarfing down red-white-and-blue cupcakes on today's holiday of remembrance, our conversations will turn to war, politics and the state of the union. Some of us will be wondering aloud whether the value of the veteran's blank check has been honored. Whether its meaning has been, in some quarters, arrogantly misused.

The blank check our veterans offer through military service does not give the rest of us a blank check. But some in public service seem to think it does, judging from the governmental arrogance increasingly on display through this young millennium.

It's not just the ever-growing wealth and presumptuousness of those who cluster in the nation's capital, where the old "Gucci Gulch" has become a Grand Canyon.

It's not just a grasping, self-regarding arrogance; now it's meddlesome and intrusive.

It's the kind of arrogance that demands to know the content of your prayers or the name of every person you've ever emailed; that announces a law must be passed before we can find out what it says; that insists we buy for others products we deem immoral or participate in others' private rituals that violate our own consciences.

Our heroes died for this?

Men and women in uniform do not offer up their lives to preserve a government, but to preserve a free people. We are not a free people because we have representative self-government; we created representative self-government because we are free.

But these days, how free are we, really?

Terrorism isn't the only evil that can be homegrown; so can tyranny. Although eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, we tend to picture the vigilant aboard ships or on military assignments or at a border patrol stations. We think of vigilant eyes trained outward from our land, when in fact they must be trained inward, too -- alert to the inherently expansionist nature of power.

Lately that expansion has been too brash to miss. Secret, broad seizures of journalists' communications records by the Department of Justice so an administration can find and punish leakers have roiled the media, of course.

And even though a sobering majority of American citizens has little trust in mass media's fairness or accuracy, they still value the constitutional guarantee of a free press highly enough to share the media's alarm.

The bolder and more troubling intrusion is the Internal Revenue Service's clearly ideological targeting of conservative and libertarian groups. Bureaucrats grilled nonprofit applicants on matters of conscience up to and including the specific content and wording of their prayers.

To those of us who are particularly vigilant on matters of religious liberty, this intrusion -- repeated and sustained over many months -- is mind-boggling. It is unfathomable that any government functionary born and raised in the American tradition could ask such a question of a fellow citizen.

The same day my Internet surfing took me to the quote about military veterans offering their lives as a "blank check" to their country, I stumbled across a study of World War II veterans that showed the more they disliked the war and the heavier combat they saw, the more likely they were, 50 years later, to be religious.

As more troops return home from today's traumatic and controversial battlefronts, what will they think of a nation where faceless bureaucrats grill citizens on their religious practices and require entire denominations to pay for medical products and procedures they deplore?

Will they find that we are working just as diligently at home as they did abroad to preserve the liberties that define us?

One purpose of this holiday is to remind us of our indebtedness. Feeling humility in the shadow of others' sacrifices is supposed to restrain our baser impulses and inspire us to rise to the same nobility in life that our fellow citizens expressed in death.

Right now I think we are falling short.



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