IT WAS THE POINT of fireworks when you were young. In those days, each backyard had its own celebration of the Fourth of July, and your dad, like all the others, presided over the lighting of the Roman candles, the volcano cones, and firecrackers. He saw to the distribution of sparklers with which you and your brothers wrote your names on the air. All that fire felt dangerous, but it did not frighten you because your father was in charge.
Fireworks were exclusive to the Fourth of July, which is how you knew what they meant: America is a great nation. Color in the sky was a joyous celebration of that greatness. You grew up with a fervent love of your country, which you never felt more fully than on its birthday.
In those years, America's greatness had just been demonstrated by the victory over fascism, and even as a child you grasped the mortal stakes of the conflict with Joseph Stalin and were not wrong. But the threshold into adulthood was set by disturbing recognitions. Having grown up playing cowboys and Indians, one day you wondered, Where are all those Indians now? And why are all the colored kids in that other school? And then, while crouched under your desk for the ''duck and cover'' drill, it hit you that Stalin's atomic bomb and America's were the same thing.
Your first real fight with your father was over Martin Luther King Jr. You started to insist, ''Doctor King says that if America is ever to be a great nation'' - but your father cut you off: ''America already is a great nation.'' The furious conviction with which he said this made you think that you and he no longer believed the same thing, but now you understand that you were both right.
You celebrate the greatness of America this week with gratitude and pride, but also with a mature understanding that greatness does not preclude grievous failure, nor does it consist in static perfection that is above criticism. Since those midsummer nights of Roman candles and sparklers in the backyard, your country has redefined itself again and again. ''Colored people'' are not mere colored people anymore, and just as assumptions of racial dominance - dominance by white Europeans - were central to the founding of America, the overturning of those assumptions has accomplished nothing less than America's reinvention. That is why you were right to see Martin Luther King Jr. as the tribune of changes that go far beyond a narrowly conceived civil rights agenda. Expansive attitudes toward gender and ethnicity, a readiness to face dark secrets of the nation's past and repent of them, authentic tolerance for various ways of being different, a recognition that violence is a particular American plague even if Americans still disagree about its implications at home and abroad - all of this marks the national mind in ways that were unthinkable not so long ago.
What made it true to say, as your father did, that America was already a great nation is that America has long contained within itself - ''We hold these truths ... '' - principles of its own self-criticism. Martin Luther King Jr. could demand radical change from within the American context, not against it. By appealing to America's own noblest idea of itself as a way of demanding a new greatness, King was building on the greatness that was already there. The founding Americans are thus honored not for having established the just society but for erecting structures of mind and union within which the just society can continually be pursued. You have seen this happen in the span of your own life, and so had your father in his.
It is not news that America stands sorely in need of criticism today. Yielding to the old temptation of a new triumphalism; putting her trust in violent power; glorifying possession to the point where the dispossessed are left behind; cloaking national insecurity with thin patriotism; treating criticism as disloyalty. But there's the point. The peculiarly American demonstration of love of country consists in the readiness to hold the nation to its own higher standard. America, by definition, continually falls short of itself.
These Fourth of July abstractions have an urgent implication for today. The misbegotten Iraqi conflict has now entered its guerrilla phase and is steadily killing young people, including Americans. Voices of protest from around the world will grow louder as this hemorrhaging worsens, but the criticism that can actually rescue Americans and Iraqis from this disaster must come from within. The capacity of your nation to face such failure and, in the name of its own best self, to end it is why your father taught you to love America. That capacity for self-criticism and change is what you celebrate this week.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.