Not long after the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, I found myself having a heated discussion with an acquaintance who stated that the United States should alleviate the threat of any future attacks by “nuking the whole Middle East.” I remember laughing out loud at the increasingly animated fellow, hoping he was either joking or drunk. Unfortunately, he was neither.

Travis Naughton

I asked if he wished for everyone in the region, including peaceful and innocent men, women, and children, to be summarily killed. He said yes. The military veteran then questioned my allegiance to America, stating that if I disagreed, then I was as bad as “them.” I tried to explain that it is possible to be both a patriotic American and a promoter of peace, but to no avail. Instead I was challenged to step outside and learn a lesson. I declined.

The last time I had been in a fistfight was back in high school with a childhood friend who, many years later, would accuse me of being a terrorist sympathizer because of my refusal to condemn an entire religious population for the actions of a miniscule radicalized minority.

The irony of being an atheist forced to defend a billion peaceful Muslims from the attacks of a couple of angry Christians was not lost on me.

I’ve been accused of being anti-American for stating my opinion that the Chinese people are not our enemies, despite so many American manufacturing jobs being lost to workers in Asia. Some folks got downright mad when I said that our own demands for cheaper goods and higher wages force businesses to outsource labor to countries where people will work for a dollar a day. I also added that some great things come out of China—two of my kids for example—but that point, too, was lost on some.

It might come as a bit of a surprise that this atheist, pacifist, liberal, parent of immigrants from a communist nation once served his country in the armed forces. Well, I tried to anyway. Back in 1990 I joined the United States Marine Corps with the plan of serving as a reservist while going to college. Unfortunately, my knees gave out halfway through the 13-week boot camp, and I was forced to drop out of training. I’ll never forget watching, with tears of disappointment in my eyes, San Diego’s impressive Independence Day fireworks display through the squad bay windows of the Medical Rehabilitation Platoon as I lay injured in my bunk. I assure you: I love my country.

But I don’t love EVERYTHING about my country. From time to time I feel compelled to speak out about things that bother me and things that I think we as a nation can improve upon. I’ve written about tolerance, equal rights for all citizens, and diversity. I’ve argued for same-sex marriage and against the displaying of the divisive Confederate Flag. I’ve argued for more funding for education and against political candidates bent on dragging the United States back in time to those “good ol’ days” when the average life expectancy was 50, mixed-race marriage was illegal, and it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives.

I’ve advocated for free speech while condemning hate speech. For the record, I believe hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, but don’t expect me to keep my free-speaking mouth shut when people say hateful things. Just last week, as we were driving home from our camping trip in Hot Springs, I saw two billboards in Harrison, Arkansas that stunned me. One read, “Diversity is code for white genocide,” and the other was an advertisement for a “white pride” radio station. While the people who paid for those signs have every right to express themselves, the billboard company is under no obligation to post such vitriol. It is not censorship for a private business to refuse to display racist advertisements for the Klan. Nevertheless, those billboards are proudly posted for every traveler to see—including those with diverse families such as my own.

To the good people of Harrison and this great nation I say; Speak out against such hate. It is your right as a citizen to call out bigots, and it is your duty as an American to ensure that each of us is free to enjoy our basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am a firm believer that everyone—regardless of their sex, race, political views, or religious preference—has the same fundamental rights as any other person. How can anyone think that’s un-American?