Paths to Patriotism: A college student

Alexa Greist is certain of this: America is her home.

Over the years, after many trips around the world – to Europe, Latin America, Australia – she knows that America is not just where she lives. She belongs here.

"I would never live in another country," says the Princeton University art-history major, who has come to New York this summer to study 18th-century French drawings at the Frick Museum. "There are a lot of things I really like here. I like living in a democracy."

From there, however, her dialogue on the state of the Union and its global war on terrorism wavers between grudging approval, qualified condemnation, and subtle criticism. Every point has its counterpoint, every assertion its rebuttal. On this July 4, her America is not red, white, and blue, but a thousand shades of gray.

She notes the compassion she sees in New York while living near the World Trade Center, but adds that, to her, the call to arms has often seemed driven more by animosity than patriotism. And while acknowledging that it was not wrong for America to oust the Taliban, she says it's hard for her to justify innocent Afghans being killed: "It's a huge problem for me."

These are concerns shared by many Americans, but on some of the nation's most elite campuses, they are more than a footnote: They are the core of the conversation.

As a result, these bastions of critical thinking have become places where America's war on terrorism is being seriously questioned. But the debate, while refreshingly lively, has also led to a sense of introspection that is almost paralyzing, as the quest to consider every possible angle yields still more questions with few answers. "It's the problem of being in an education system where you're supposed to try to argue every point of view," says Ms. Greist.

She wants nothing to do with patriotism if that means acting quickly and out of vengeance, rather than calmly and compassionately. In the past, she suggests, America has played the part of a global policeman, meddling in other nations' affairs – a role that gives Greist pause.

In the space of a few seconds, she outlines the questions that make her lukewarm about supporting her country in the war on terrorism: If a country interferes with the way another country treats its people, "when is it legitimately standing up for certain inalienable rights and when it is it imposing its own cultural values on that country?" she asks.

"In Afghanistan, for instance, the way the Taliban treated women, even before 9/11, it made me sick. But should we have gone in? I have so much trouble with that."

It's a quandary among many college students, according to a recent study released by Americans for Victory Over Terrorism. In the poll, 79 percent of students said that Western culture was not superior to Arab culture. To some, this points to an inability to draw even the most basic moral distinctions.

Greist acknowledges as much. "I am very antijudgmental," she says, but she makes no apologies. When she speaks of her home in Madison, Wis., her voice rises with affection, and she repeats one word again and again: tolerance. This is the America she knows – one that embraces, nurtures, and accepts – not one that imposes its will on its citizens or any others.

This July 4, she'll be in Montana, where her family is building a second home. Her parents, both PhDs, will be there, as well as her brother and grandparents. "We'll eat, enjoy being together, being outside, and maybe go see fireworks at a nearby ranch," she says.

Next year, she plans to finish her studies in 16th-century Italian art at Princeton before beginning another seven to 10 years of graduate school to become an art history professor or museum curator.

Even now, though, she has an inkling of where she might end up.

"I want to have a family, and I want my children to grow up as I did," she says with a smile. "I want my kids to have a backyard, to be able to walk to the neighborhood school – that says America to me. That helped make me who I am. Madison is a very tolerant place, and I really like that."

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