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Defending our right to be offended - Clay Wilson

The progression of stories on the TV news last week made me laugh, in a bitter sort of way.

The news had just finished a report about Diego Rincon, the 19-year-old Conyers soldier killed March 29 by a suicide bomber in Iraq.

The story was about how Rincon's father had contacted Zell Miller, one of Georgia's U.S. Senators, to ask that his son be granted U.S. citizenship by the time of his funeral Thursday.

Rincon was a Colombian national, having moved to Conyers with his family in 1989.

According to the report, Rincon's father, Jorge, said that one of his son's greatest wishes was to become a U.S. citizen. Thanks to Miller's efforts, apparently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service expedited the process so that Rincon could be buried as a citizen of the country for which he died.

Obviously, the story was an emotional one. It was also inspiring, to think that someone would be willing to fight and die for a country of which he wasn't even a citizen, because he believed so much in what that country stands for.

But then the bitterly humorous part came in. Upon finishing the report on Rincon, the news went live to a reporter at the Georgia State Capitol, where legislators were in their sixth hour of debate (this was the 11 p.m. news) over the state flag.

The House apparently had a midnight deadline to pass a bill that would allow citizens to vote the state flag back to a modified version of the pre-1956 flag.

If the people failed to ratify the new flag, then a later referendum would be held on several choices, including the highly controversial former flag that featured the Confederate Battle Cross.

Of course, the proposed bill had stalled in the House, with representatives on both sides making impassioned speeches about the virtues or evils of the various flag versions.

I have refrained from editorializing on the flag issue, because I understand that sentiment runs very deep here in the Land of Tara. But let's just say that I think our legislators n on both sides of the issue n have bigger things to worry about.

That's why I laughed at the irony when the two stories ran back-to-back.

Halfway around the world, American men and women n many of them from Georgia n were fighting because they believe in the ideals of America. Back home, men and women in our state capitol were fighting over the symbols on a piece of cloth.

I thought to myself, "Is this what Diego Rincon was fighting for? Is this really the country that he longed to be part of, so much that he was willing to give his life in its defense?"

And then it hit me: This was exactly what Diego Rincon was fighting for.

So that our legislators n who are still ultimately the people's representatives n can openly debate which flag will fly over our state Capitol. So that voices on either side of the issue can speak up freely without fear of the secret police or government death squads.

And so that people like me can publicly write how pointless I think the whole debate is without fear of retribution (at least from the government).

Until just a few days ago, the people of Iraq didn't have these luxuries. There was no debate. There was no civil discourse. There was the government's n Saddam's n opinion, or there was prison, torture or death.

The point is that, for all its faults, foibles and farces, I still believe the American system of government is the best in the world. It's certainly not perfect, but at least it gives us the freedom to point that out.

I believe Diego Rincon felt the same way. And I owe him n and all those willing to risk their lives for our country n a debt of gratitude.

Clay Wilson is the education and public safety reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Thursdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.