LAFITTE, La. — From the country's earliest days, when a handful of colonists became fed up with Britain and decided independence was worth dying for, Americans have been guided by fires in their bellies and a deep belief in the ability to accomplish anything.
For the United States, big dreams and the confidence they inspire have always produced big deeds — the creation of a new nation, the taming of a frontier, the building of an industrial giant and the ascent of a superpower.
But on the weekend when we celebrate becoming Americans, an inability to plug a spewing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico — or launch a coherent, effective cleanup response on par with the disaster — has many people along the coastline wondering whether we have lost our way.
"From an American standpoint, this whole thing is ridiculous," said Cliff Tucker, a 63-year-old retired police officer. Like many in this town 30 miles south of New Orleans, he lives on a bayou just a short boat ride to the ocean. "When you lose your faith in the system," Tucker wonders, "then where do you go?"
While it would be foolish, not to mention inaccurate, to suggest that an uncontrollable gusher means Americans are no longer capable of reaching the moon or rebuilding war-ravaged Europe, the spill and its disastrous aftereffects have produced an unusual feeling of impotence.
"Right now, this country is about as upside down as it can get," said Carmen Wenzel, 56. She sells postcards, umbrellas and sunglasses at a store in touristy Pensacola Beach, where washed-up oil has become a fixture.
Most years her house is as festive on the Fourth of July as on Christmas. This year, her decorations are sitting in the box.
Glum was the order of the day on Dauphin Island, Ala., where flags and patriotic banners decorated light poles but holiday fireworks shows had been canceled. Mayor Jeff Collier said people, dispirited by the spill, were in no mood for a festive blowout. Cleanup workers have taken over parts of town, including a public beach where the parking lot is now a staging area.
Accompanied by her four grown sons and their families, Teri Bahr surveyed the odd scene on the beach and saw a picture of American decline caused by too much reliance on government and too little personal responsibility. "I think this is a sign of how weak we are. We are weak militarily, socially and economically," said Bahr, a retired school counselor from Kansas.
Despite all the frustration and negative navel-gazing, though, the American DNA is resilient and deeply stamped with the belief that a bad situation can, with the right elbow grease and ingenuity, be turned around.
At a holiday parade in Seaside, in Florida's Panhandle, a lime-green Jeep festooned with red, white and blue streamers and balloons had a handmade sign taped to the door: "Let Freedom Ring.'' "The message," its driver said as she passed by, "is don't give up."