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TOO MANY AMERICANS ARE ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH

I spent 11 years in Lackawanna and, like most Americans lately, I've been following the misfortunes of some of my former neighbors in the news.

I shopped in the same stores, played in the same parks, walked the same streets and breathed the same air as six of my Yemeni neighbors who were arrested and accused of constituting a "sleeper cell" of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization.

They were arrested because, while on a religious sabbatical in their home country, they attended an assembly where bin Laden spoke and opted not to share their mistake with the world.

Lackawanna has a rich variety of racial and ethnic diversity -- I'm German-English myself -- and seeing my Muslim neighbors greet their "brothers from another mother" as they pass in the spired shadows of Our Lady of Victory Basilica or scramble around their roadside soccer fields, I realize that our cultural differences run deeper than our definition of "football" and houses of worship.

In a community burdened with high local taxes, Lackawanna is home to some of the poorest people in Western New York. Whenever I met these young men's mothers in the market, with their impeccably buffed and behaved brothers and sisters in tow, I always admired their ability to avoid our Western obsession with wantonly material possessions through their focus on faith and family.

But I also love the personal freedom in terms of dress, deportment and expression that a hard-fought American independence has given me, and I'm thankful to be living in one of the few countries in the world where I can be whoever I feel is me.

These are ways I wish we were more alike. Yet when I look at what's happening in the world today, I realize that it is I, not my six Muslim neighbors, who have been "sleeping" all these years. I slept while my country became a corporate subsidy of the businessmen and bankers who benefited from our inattention to their corruption of our political institutions.

I slept while public service became "the public serves us" and lifetime legislators feathered their own nests with my tax dollars.

I slept while elections were stolen and wars were waged in my name and against my will, by leaders with personal vendettas and agendas that had nothing to do with the America they supposedly represented.

I slept while temporary administrations made me hated and despised around the world, and now I live in fear of the reprisals their actions have wrought. But now I am awake.

I don't care if President Bush's dad never gets revenge on Saddam Hussein, or if Vice President Cheney's chums at Haliburton don't make more millions in stolen Mideastern oil money, or if GM sells another hundred Selfishly Useless Vehicles. I care about my family, friends, neighbors and countrymen who are put in harm's way because of them.

Bush's America is neither George Washington's, nor mine. We had a chance to change that on Election Day, and we failed. I did my part, but not enough others turned out or voted to elect the representatives who would have changed our policies. Now we will all have to suffer the consequences.

ALEXANDER GRAHAM lives in Hamburg.
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