Fireworks and American Culture: Personal Freedom and Contractual Obligations
As I sat on the edge of a hill overlooking the beach in Vermilion, Ohio on the 4th of July (Independence Day in the USA), I looked across Lake Erie to the twinkling lights on the tall amusement rides of Cedar Point: mecca for roller-coaster enthusiasts the world over. I spent a week in the area visiting family, but as I’ve probably been to Cedar Point about 500 times in my life (I’m not exaggerating), I opted out of spending $45 and fighting the crowds this year.
In any case, Cedar Point puts on a large display of professional-grade fireworks over the lake on Independence Day every year, which can be seen for 20 miles. The pyrotechnicians who are in charge of the show must be licensed and trained, and these types of shows are heavily regulated (as they’re basically shooting off bombs, and these have been known to go astray and kill someone every now and again).
As I swatted at mosquitoes and watched the fireflies flash their bioluminescence in the humid Midwestern evening heat, I watched some amateur pyros set up their own firework display on a stone breakwall abutting the beach. There were approximately 75 boxes of the large mortar-type fireworks all fused together, to be set off some time after dark. I would estimate the total cost of the fireworks was two thousand dollars or more. The odd thing is, it’s illegal to set off fireworks without a valid license in Ohio. In fact, it’s illegal for non-professionals to set off many kinds of fireworks in most of the United States. But in some states where it’s illegal to discharge them, you can legally buy and sell them. Confused? You should be.
If you buy many kinds of fireworks in Ohio, you have to sign a contract that says that you agree to set them off in another state. Yes, you read that correctly. Where it probably won’t be legal to set them off either. These types of fireworks are illegal for good reason; in 2008 fireworks caused 7,000 emergency room visits and 22,000 unintentional fires, which resulted in 42 million dollars in property damage in the United States. Most of the injuries were suffered by teenagers and children. Some of these injuries were from the large mortar-type fireworks (illegal to buy and possess in many states), but the majority of injuries are caused by sparklers, black cats, and bottle rockets… some of which you can legally buy in grocery stores around the 4th of July.
Fireworks have been a part of Independence Day in the USA since the 1700’s, but keep in mind that at the time people freely handled mercury and lead, wife-beating was commonplace, and dueling with pistols was accepted as a way to settle disputes. So what’s the deal? Why do Americans insist on risking life, limb, and burning their houses down for displays of combustible glory? Why don’t we leave fireworks to the professionals? The simple answer: rugged individualism. Many Americans eagerly usher their children out of the home at the age of 18, grumble incessantly about government interference in their lives, and idealize cultural icons of freedom such as cowboys in the American West. Americans tend to value individuality, particularly the ability to make personal choices, much more than most other cultures.
The culturally-held belief that the USA was founded by people seeking freedom and liberty, those largely indefinable concepts, is ingrained in Americans from birth. Even if a behavior is totally reckless and extremely dangerous (demolition derby, bull riding, riding a motorcycle without a helmet), Americans tend to believe that it’s the individual’s responsibility to know the risks of a given behavior, and to accept personal (and financial) responsibility for any of the consequences. Of course, there are plenty of things that are viewed as too generally harmful to be legal (drugs, assault weapons, etc.), but a substantial number of Americans wholeheartedly believe that “the government that governs least governs best.”
America is also oriented towards written contracts; every business deal, every licensure examination, and every application requires personal information, a signature, and a date, and often a formal contract (or even a fingerprint!). Many American universities now employ an “Honor Code,” which students must sign, promising in writing not to cheat. Americans, in our individualism, often don’t have the community ties, concern for the collective, or emphasis on familial or personal honor that has traditionally reinforced good behavior in other parts of the world, and so instead we tend to rely on written contracts.
In the USA, if you don’t insist on a contract being signed prior to doing business, the expectation is that someone will try to take advantage of you. Watch any of the popular American “Judge” shows, and observe the reaction when the judge asks: “Well, did you sign a contract?” and the plaintiff says “no”. The judge’s reaction, verbal or non-verbal, will communicate: “Well of course you got screwed, you didn’t have a contract!” However, your obligation in no way extends any farther than the specific language spelled out in the contract, or in the case of fireworks, contracts are only a formality to cover the liability of one of the parties (in this case, fireworks vendors), while the purchaser has no intention of honoring it (ie, by setting off gigantic explosives in their backyard).
For the record, I myself didn’t shoot off any fireworks this year. I did, however, exercise my American freedom by doing a “Keg-stand” on the beach with some pyrotechnically inclined Ohioans, as they all circled me, chanting “USA! USA! USA! USA!” Probably illegal, definitely irresponsible, and totally American.